Thanks to extraordinary advances in medicine, critical care providers can save lives even when the cards are stacked against their patients. However, there are times when no amount of care, however cutting-edge it is, will save a patient. In these instances, when physicians recognize that patients will not be rescued, further critical care is said to be “futile.” In a new study, my RAND and UCLA colleagues and I find that critical care therapies that physicians regard as “futile” are not uncommon in intensive care units, raising some uncomfortable questions.
Of course, we’re fortunate to have such fantastic technology at our disposal — but we must address how to use it appropriately when the patient may not benefit from high-intensity measures. When aggressive critical care is unsuccessful at achieving an acceptable level of health for the patient, treatment should focus on palliative care.
The human capacity to deny reality is one of our defining characteristics. Evolutionarily, it has often served us well, inspiring us to press onward against long odds. Without denial, the American settlers might have aborted their westward trek somewhere around Pittsburgh; Steve Jobs might thrown up his hands after the demise of the Lisa; and Martin Luther King’s famous speech might have been entitled, “I Have a Strategic Plan and a Draft Budget.”
Yet when danger or failure is just around the corner, denial can be dysfunctional (see Karl Rove on Fox News), even suicidal (see climate change and Superstorm Sandy).
Healthcare is no exception. Emerging evidence suggests that patients and their surrogates frequently engage in massive denial when it comes to prognosis near the end of life. While understandable – denial is often the way that people remove the “less” from “hopeless” – it can lead to terrible decisions, with bad consequences for both the individual patient and society.
First, there is evidence that individuals charged with making decisions for their loved ones (“surrogate decision-makers”) simply don’t believe that physicians can prognosticate accurately. In a 2009 study, UCSF’s Lucas Zier found that nearly two-thirds of surrogates gave little credence to their physicians’ predictions of futility. Driven by this skepticism, one-in-three would elect continued life-sustaining treatments even after the doctor offered their loved one a less than 1% chance of survival.
In a more recent study by Zier and colleagues, 80 surrogates of critically ill patients were given hypothetical prognostic statements regarding their loved ones. The statements ranged from “he will definitely survive” to “he will definitely not survive,” with 14 statements in between (including some that offered percentages, such as “he has a [10%, or a 50%, or a 90%] chance of survival”). After hearing these statements, surrogates were asked to interpret them and offer their own survival estimates.
When the prognosis was optimistic (“definitely survive” or “90%” survival odds), surrogates’ estimates were in sync with those of the physicians. But when the prognosis was pessimistic (“definitely not survive” or “he has a 5% chance of surviving”), surrogates’ interpretations took a sharp turn toward optimism. For example, surrogates believed that when the doctor offered a 5% survival chance, the patient’s true chance of living was at least three times that; some thought it was as high as 40%. Remarkably, when asked later to explain this discordance, many surrogates struggled. Said one, “I’m not coming up with good words to explain this [trend] because I was not aware I was doing this.” The authors identified two main themes to explain their findings: surrogates’ need to be optimistic in the face of serious illness (either as a coping mechanism for themselves or to buck up their loved one), and surrogates’ beliefs that their loved one possessed attributes unknown to the physician, attributes that would result in better-than-predicted survival (the “he’s a fighter” argument).
Last year I graduated from nursing school and began working in a specialized intensive care unit in a large academic hospital. During an orientation class a nurse who has worked on the unit for six years gave a presentation on the various kinds of strokes. Noting the difference between supratentorial and infratentorial strokes—the former being more survivable and the latter having a more severe effect on the body’s basic functions such as breathing—she said that if she were going to have a stroke, she knew which type she would prefer: “I would want to have an infratentorial stroke. Because I don’t even want to make it to the hospital.”
She wasn’t kidding, and after a couple months of work, I understood why. I also understood the nurses who voice their advocacy of natural death—and their fear of ending up like some of our patients—in regular discussions of plans for DNRtattoos. For example: “I am going to tattoo DO NOT RESUSCITATE across my chest. No, across my face, because they won’t take my gown off. I am going to tattoo DO NOT INTUBATE above my lip.”
Another nurse says that instead of DNR, she’s going to be DNA, Do Not Admit.
We know that such plainly stated wishes would never be honored. Medical personnel are bound by legal documents and orders, and the DNR tattoo is mostly a very dark joke. But the oldest nurse on my unit has instructed her children never to call 911 for her, and readily discusses her suicide pact with her husband.
You will not find a group less in favor of automatically aggressive, invasive medical care than intensive care nurses, because we see the pointless suffering it often causes in patients and families. Intensive care is at best a temporary detour during which a patient’s instability is monitored, analyzed, and corrected, but it is at worst a high tech torture chamber, a taste of hell during a person’s last days on earth.
Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.
It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.
Of course, doctors don’t want to die; they want to live. But they know enough about modern medicine to know its limits. And they know enough about death to know what all people fear most: dying in pain, and dying alone. They’ve talked about this with their families. They want to be sure, when the time comes, that no heroic measures will happen—that they will never experience, during their last moments on earth, someone breaking their ribs in an attempt to resuscitate them with CPR (that’s what happens if CPR is done right). Continue reading…
So begins this New York Times essay by Peter Bach, MD, where he talks about the inadequacy of resource use at the end of life as a policy metric. Now, I am not very fond of policy metrics, as most of you know. So, imagine my surprise when I found myself disagreeing vehemently with Peter’s argument. Well, to be fair, I did not disagree with him completely. I only disagreed with the thesis that he constructed, skillfully yet transparently fallaciously (wow, a double adverb, I am going to literary hell!) Here is what got me.
He describes a case of a middle-aged man who was experiencing a disorganized heart rhythm, which ultimately resulted in dead bowel and sepsis. The man became critically ill, the story continues, but three weeks later he went home alive and well. This, Dr. Bach says, is why end of life resource utilization is a bad metric: if this guy, who had a high risk of dying, had in fact died in the hospital, the resources spent on his hospital care would have been considered wasted by the measurement. And I could not agree more that lumping all terminal resource use under one umbrella of wasteful spending is idiotic. Unfortunately, knowingly or not, Peter presented a faulty argument.
The case he used as an example is not the case. Indeed it is a straw man constructed for the cynical purpose of easy knock-down. When we talk about futile care, we are not referring to this middle-aged (presumably) relatively healthy guy, no. We are talking about that 95-year-old nursing home patient with advanced dementia being treated in an ICU for urosepsis, or coming into the hospital for a G-tube placement because of no longer being able to eat or drink. We are talking about patients with advanced heart failure and metastatic cancer, whose chances of surviving for the subsequent three months are less than 25%. And yes, we are also talking about some middle-aged guy with gut ischemia, sepsis and worsening multi-organ failure whose chances of surviving to hospital discharge are close to nil; but in his case, instead of being clear from the beginning, the situation evolves.