We’re Bad at Death. Can We Talk?

[pullquote]“Patients who engage in advance care planning are less likely to die in the hospital or to receive futile intensive care.”[/pullquote]Dhruv Khullar M.D. writes a moving piece for The New York Times about why it is important to have deep meaningful conversations about end of life before it is too late to do so. It has been increasingly acknowledged that many Americans would rather not go through intensive care and excessive hospitalization at the end of their life. It is not even clear that the aggressive medical care allows people to live any longer than if they choose not to go through it. The two things that have the biggest impact on improving end of life for individuals is “earlier conversations about their goals and greater use of palliative care services”. Unfortunately, people often put off these discussions until it is too late. Khullar explains that “Patients who engage in advance care planning are less likely to die in the hospital or to receive futile intensive care.” This is important because according to a 2011 Public Opinion report by the Center to Advance Palliative Care “the vast majority of patients say they would want palliative care for themselves and their family members if understood as an ‘extra layer of support’ during serious illness.”

It is important for people to understand what palliative care is. An improved definition has been described as “specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. This type of care is focused on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress of a serious illness – whatever the diagnosis. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists who work with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. Palliative care is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and can be provided together with curative treatment.”

There seems to be a disconnect with what physicians tend to view palliative care as and what it really is. Many physicians tend to view it as synonymous with end-of-life care. This leads to certain patients not receiving the care they require because the illnesses may not be traditionally thought of as terminal, such as kidney failure (117,000 reported cases in 2013 in U.S., 89,000 die annually), or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (15.7 million people currently diagnosed in U.S and was the 3rd leading cause of death in 2014 ). “Palliative care, with its focus on symptom control and holistic well-being, should be considered at any stage of a serious illness – not just at the end. Its use should be driven by patient need, not disease prognosis.”

Physicians and the public should understand that palliative care can be combined with treatment of a disease. We should all be more knowledgeable about these choices and understand there are options for people with serious illnesses. According to research done by the American Medical Association when having conversations about terminal illness nearly 70% of physicians] say they haven’t been trained to have this conversation and about half say they often feel unsure of what to say when discussing terminal illness.”

This needs to change. My husband and I came across this issue when he was diagnosed with both Alzheimer’ and laryngeal cancer, only six weeks apart from one another. End of life issues were never brought up. It was as if our doctors thought we had no choice. The neuro-psychologist said he had about three months of mental competency left and that we should get all our affairs in order. The throat surgeon said he had to have three invasive surgeries on his throat or else he would die a painful death within six to twelve months. That was the extent of our conversation with these professionals.