In 2009, my father was suffering from an advanced and untreatable neurological condition that would soon kill him. (I wrote about his decline in an article for this magazine in April 2010.) Eating, drinking, and walking were all difficult and dangerous for him. He ate, drank, and walked anyway, because doing his best to lead a normal life sustained his morale and slowed his decline. “Use it or lose it,” he often said. His strategy broke down calamitously when he agreed to be hospitalized for an MRI test. I can only liken his experience to an alien abduction. He was bundled into a bed, tied to tubes, and banned from walking without help or taking anything by mouth. No one asked him about what he wanted. After a few days, and a test that turned up nothing, he left the hospital no longer able to walk. Some weeks later, he managed to get back on his feet; unfortunately, by then he was only a few weeks from death. The episode had only one positive result. Disgusted and angry after his discharge from the hospital, my father turned to me and said, “I am never going back there.” (He never did.) (via How Not to Die - Jonathan Rauch - The Atlantic)
- What should have taken place was what is known in the medical profession as The Conversation. The momentum of medical maximalism should have slowed long enough for a doctor or a social worker to sit down with him and me to explain, patiently and in plain English, his condition and his treatment options, to learn what his goals were for the time he had left, and to establish how much and what kind of treatment he really desired. Alas, evidence shows that The Conversation happens much less regularly than it should, and that, when it does happen, information is typically presented in a brisk, jargony way that patients and families don’t really understand. Many doctors don’t make time for The Conversation, or aren’t good at conducting it (they’re not trained or rewarded for doing so), or worry their patients can’t handle it.
- This is a problem, because the assumption that doctors know what their patients want turns out to be wrong: when doctors try to predict the goals and preferences of their patients, they are “highly inaccurate,” according to one summary of the research, published by Benjamin Moulton and Jaime S. King inThe Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics. Patients are “routinely asked to make decisions about treatment choices in the face of what can only be described as avoidable ignorance,” Moulton and King write. “In the absence of complete information, individuals frequently opt for procedures they would not otherwise choose.”
- Though no one knows for sure, unwanted treatment seems especially common near the end of life. A few years ago, at age 94, a friend of mine’s father was hospitalized with internal bleeding and kidney failure. Instead of facing reality (he died within days), the hospital tried to get authorization to remove his colon and put him on dialysis. Even physicians tell me they have difficulty holding back the kind of mindlessly aggressive treatment that one doctor I spoke with calls “the war on death.” Matt Handley, a doctor and an executive with Group Health Cooperative, a big health system in Washington state, described his father-in-law’s experience as a “classic example of overmedicalization.” There was no Conversation. “He went to the ICU for no medical reason,” Handley says. “No one talked to him about the fact that he was going to die, even though outside the room, clinicians, when asked, would say ‘Oh, yes, he’s dying.’ ”