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When a doctor and patient disagree about care at the end of life

20 July 2017

Sometimes, doctors and patients disagree about end-of-life care. I know, because it happened with me.

Not long ago, a frail-looking elderly patient appeared at my cardiac health clinic with a file full of hospitalizations stemming from a heart attack years before. He’d had three coronary stents put in, had had heart bypass surgery and was unable to walk for more than a block due to chest pain. I saw that a previous doctor had written “DNR” — do not resuscitate — in his chart, so I asked him to confirm his wishes.

No, he said, to my surprise. He actually wanted to be a “full code” — meaning that chest compressions, shocks and intubation were to be used if necessary to keep him alive.

I was taken aback. Someone had presumably told him that he would probably not survive a cardiac arrest even with cardiopulmonary resuscitation. (Only 1 out of 7 patients older than 80 do; this man was close to 90.)

“I don’t want anyone giving up on me,” he said. No matter how much I explained that CPR would probably only cause him to suffer longer without adding to his life, he remained adamant. He left my office visit with a yellow “full code” indicator in his chart instead of the red “DNR” one.

When I walked home that night, I couldn’t help thinking how badly our conversation had gone. I had discussed end-of-life planning with many patients, and usually we’d been able to come to decisions that made sense both medically and to the patient. But not this time.

Maybe I hadn’t explained the facts well enough; maybe there was a language barrier; or maybe he just didn’t trust me.

Medicare recently put in place new rules that will allow doctors to be reimbursed for discussing end-of-life preferences with patients.

Originally derailed by the “death panel” accusations of 2010, the measure has been hailed as a major victory toward a better, more transparent system of end-of-life care. Patrick Conway, the chief medical officer for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, remarked that such advance-care planning discussions were important to promote “patient- and family-centered care.”

But sometimes these discussions are anything but patient-centered. That’s because what the doctor wants doesn’t always align with what the patient needs.

As a resident, I approach most end-of-life conversations with a narrow focus: Confirm a code status and get the name of an emergency contact person. “Do you want to be resuscitated if you lost your pulse?” “Do you want to have a breathing tube if you were unable to breathe on your own?” “Whom should we contact in case of an emergency?” I needed to document answers to those questions to finish my patient-chart note. With my pager ringing and admissions arriving, I usually didn’t have time for anything else.

The patients I speak to, however, want so much more out of their end-of-life conversations.

One of the most common questions I heard was “How long do I have?” Indeed, about half of patients desire some knowledge about prognosis when discussing the end of life. They also wanted to know whether their symptoms — pain and nausea, for example — would ever go away, and what options would allow them to be at home during their final days. One woman even asked whether someone could set up her deathbed along the same beach where she had grown up. I frequently can’t answer these questions.

Yet even these potentially frustrating conversations aren’t that common: While 8 in 10 people of all ages think it is important to talk to their doctor about their end-of-life wishes, fewer than1 in 10 report actually having had these discussions. But there are two participants in those end-of-life conversations: patient and doctor. Unless each realizes what the other wants, both risk coming away from those conversations feeling uncomfortable or sensing that things had not gone well.

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