An 85-year-old woman with moderate Alzheimer’s disease who enjoys walking in her nursing home’s garden with her walker has fallen and broken her hip. An advance directive signed by the patient states a preference for “Comfort Measures Only,” and specifically states that she does not want to be transferred to the hospital. The physician believes that surgery would provide long-term pain relief and the chance to maintain some mobility.
What do you do? How do you reconcile her previously expressed hypothetical wishes in an Advance Directive with what is now a rather unanticipated scenario?
In a paper published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine, Alex Smith, Bernard Lo, and Rebecca Sudore developed a 5-question framework to help physicians and surrogates through the decision making process in time like this. The framework proposes 5 key-questions to untangle these conflicts:
- Is the clinical situation an emergency?
- In view of the patient’s values and goals, how likely will the benefits of the intervention outweigh the burdens?
Shortly after I was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer a scan showed a hot spot on my lower spine. Was it the spread of cancer? My oncologist scheduled a bone biopsy at my hospital, Maimonides Medical Center, in order for us to find out.
A few days before the procedure, I went in for preadmissions testing. As part of my formal intake, in addition to collecting my insurance information and poking and prodding me a few times, the nurse asked me if I would like to fill out an advance directive. This was not because she was a miraculous oracle who knew the outcome of my biopsy, which would leave me with a Stage IV diagnosis. No, her question was merely standard procedure. I said yes, and shortly, a specially trained social worker arrived to walk me through the process.
A cheerful young woman reminiscent of camp counselor sat down next to me with papers neatly attached to her clipboard. The first step, she explained, is appointing a health care proxy, someone you trust to make health decisions for you should you become incapacitated. Being a nurse, I knew this, but it was comforting having someone there with me while I filled out the form. I chose my mother. Since my diagnosis, she and I had had numerous conversations about what I wanted should my disease progress and take away my quality of life. I trusted that she would respect my wishes, even if that meant making painful decisions as my disease progresses.
There is another form of advance directive that I haven’t completed yet—but will—with the assistance of that same social worker. It is nationally known as the POLST or Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment. Developed in Oregon and disseminated by the California Healthcare Foundation, POLST turns the treatment wishes of seriously ill individuals into physician-signed medical orders that the health care team must follow.