Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Neurosurgeon’s Crisis

What would you do if you were a 36 year old Neurosurgeon finishing a grueling 6 year training program at Stanford, a rising superstar, married, but just diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer? The cancer is treatable but not curable. The future is unknown.
Would you complete your training despite the pain and treatment side effects? Would you go into counselling with your wife? Would you write a best seller memoir? Would you father your first child? Would you talk about life, death, and God in your beautiful seemingly effortless prose honed by your Master of Arts in English Literature?
Well Dr. Paul Kananithi did it all in his beautiful book, “When Breath Becomes Air.” Be prepared to shed some tears as you are given remarkable insight into this young couple's journey as they face the inevitable. In short, this book becomes a reaffirmation of life as it faces death.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mentally ill - a death with dignity in Holland

From Aeon: "Doctor-assisted suicide for the chronically mentally ill is currently legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, despite being one of the most contentious points in the ongoing right-to-die debate. Letting You Go follows one such Dutch patient, 27-year-old Sanne, who, after nearly a decade of pursuing treatments for her chronic depression, insomnia and borderline personality disorder, has chosen to end her suffering and pursue a planned death. While clearly shaken, Sanne’s father has made the difficult decision to stand by his daughter’s choice, reasoning ‘she couldn’t, and shouldn’t, do this alone’. Unflinching, honest and humane, the Dutch director Kim Faber’s film is both a moving portrait of father and daughter, and an intimate look at one of the most controversial medical ethics issues of our times. The film played at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2014 and AFI DOCS film festival in 2015."
This is the scenario I'm concerned about. Should we simply support the wishes of anyone who wants to die? Is this the "slippery slope" that critics of physician assisted death have noted? Do you have comments after watching this hard to watch video? 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Spirituality at the end of life

"Two of the great 20th-century theorists of care for the dying urged people to be on the lookout for such moments. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying (1969), encouraged family and medical staff to listen for the ‘implicit communications of dying patients’. The hospice care pioneer Cicely Saunders spoke about the need to attend to a person’s ‘total pain’: not just physical, but social, emotional and, yes, spiritual pain, too.
"Such broad, nuanced forms of care as these are anticipated in the Scottish government’s report ‘Strategic Framework for Action on Palliative and End-of-Life Care’ (2015). The Framework aims to create a ‘culture of openness about death, dying and bereavement’, and to find ways of incorporating people’s spiritual and psychological needs into end-of-life care. But it also prompts the question: why, a generation after Kübler-Ross and Saunders, are such things being ‘called for’ as though they were new, unusual and brave? Why is spirituality not already a routine part of end-of-life care?"
I was able to spend four nights on a cot in my father's room as he lay dying in a coma at age 94. Waking at night listening to his deep Kussmaul breathing, I stood and prayed at his bedside. I've heard that prayer is simply talking to God. I did feel a presence in the room as my father's soul began to separate from the worn out earthly body. It was so quiet and peaceful after his last breath. Was this "presence" wishful thinking? Perhaps, but just "being and not doing" helped me in the moment. Or was it the "mysterious mutuality of being and doing?"

Friday, October 21, 2016

Thoughts and Experiences with VSED (Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking)

There is increasing public discourse and debate about the ethics of ending one's life "in a dignified manner" when entering its terminal phase. But what if one is not terminal, yet finds themselves in an intolerable condition and wants to die?

Recently at the Seattle University Law School a remarkable two day symposium was held bringing together the leading national thinkers in this area - along with personal stories from real time experiences. These have be summarized in the "Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics" - the summer 2016 issue.

Paula Span from the NYT was a speaker and reports her take on the conference. "In end-of-life circles, this option is called VSED (usually pronounced VEEsed), for voluntarily stopping eating and drinking. It causes death by dehydration, usually within seven to 14 days. To people with serious illnesses who want to hasten their deaths, a small but determined group, VSED can sound like a reasonable exit strategy.

"Unlike aid with dying, now legal in five states, it doesn’t require governmental action or physicians’ authorization. Patients don’t need a terminal diagnosis, and they don’t have to prove mental capacity. They do need resolve. “It’s for strong-willed, independent people with very supportive families,” said Dr. Timothy Quill, a veteran palliative care physician at the University of Rochester Medical Center."

My view: VSED, no doubt, has been with us since the beginning of time and may be much more common than we realize. A particular problem is dementia. With the aging population dementia is a distinct feared reality which will affect 30% of us above age 90. VSED appears to be a viable moral option for some people but, that said, there is a need more study and research. An additional problem is the length of time VSED takes and the varying control of suffering.

Systems will need to develop for education and support. Hospice and Palliative Care will need to have their positions enhanced to include VSED. Medical and nursing groups will need to develop a caring stance. So there's lots to be done. The conference at Seattle University Law School provides a landmark introduction to help us begin to understand the future of VSED.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Art of Condolence

"Offering a written expression of condolence (from the Latin word condolere, to grieve or to suffer with someone) used to be a staple of polite society. 'A letter of condolence may be abrupt, badly constructed, ungrammatical — never mind,' advised the 1960 edition of Emily Post. 'Grace of expression counts for nothing; sincerity alone is of value.'
"But these days, as Facebooking, Snapchatting or simply ignoring friends has become fashionable, the rules of expressing sympathy have become muddied at best, and concealed in an onslaught of emoji at worst. 'Sorry about Mom. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn.'"
This touching article in the NYT reminds me how difficult it is to express heartfelt words to the grieving. I just lost a wonderful UW Critical Care MD friend who taught and cared for patients in the ICU at Harborview. Brain cancer, surgery, radiation, chemo - then a few great years. But now he's gone leaving wife, children and other loved ones behind. What can we say?
I used to call families about a month after a death of their loved one in the ICU. Things had become quiet for them and the loneliness had begun to set in. They seemed so happy to talk and often had lingering questions about the care. The human connection in the main thing we need. Words help but don't suffice. The hand squeeze, the look, the note - it's all about caring. Click here to read The Art of Condolence.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Fear and Politics - a toxic mix


Famous "Daisy" Attack Ad from 1964 Presidential Election,

Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater

Is exploiting the fear of dying acceptable rhetoric in political campaigns? 

The world premiere of "Daisy" now playing in Seattle exposes 

the complicated ethics of advertising and politics. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

KEXP radio interview on end of life decisions

Here's a half hour radio interview at KEXP FM 90.3 which is affiliated with the University of Washington. Mike McCormick interviews me about end of life decision making. You might prefer this to the longer talk below.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Town Hall talk - stories from the ICU and beyond to help us plan for the end of our lives

Talk at Seattle's Town Hall about planning for the end of our lives. How do we have the conversations; talk to our loved ones and medical providers: understand our choices; make our wishes known; and understand all the options?

Click here for the handout which references web sites, books, etc.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Why Zeke is wrong about aging

The Atlantic is wrong about aging: Why our anti-elderly bias needs to change

“Seventy-five. That’s how long I want to live: 75 years.”
– Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel
At Town Hall a few weeks ago, I was able to ask Michael Kinsley what he thought of Ezekiel Emanuel’s article in The Atlantic. He wryly replied, “Well, I’d like to see Zeke’s response when he’s 74.” Indeed, 
According to Holland and Greenstein, “Self-reported well-being starts relatively high for people in their early twenties, after which time it starts to steadily decrease, particularly for the “sandwich generation.” Well-being plummets to its lowest level for people in their early fifties. After this trough, well-being starts to increase again, and keeps increasing over the years, until, by age 85, it’s even higher than it is for those in their twenties.
“If Dr. Emanuel looked more closely at older age, instead of fearing it, he might find that along with the negatives are many positives. The functional limitations he cites — decreased ability to walk a quarter of a mile, or climb 10 stairs, or stand without special equipment — are only part of the picture. It can be hard for overachievers to see these positives, especially if they confuse professional esteem with quality of life. And so, he is proud of a father who is ‘the prototype of a hyperactive Emanuel,’ but also weary when his father slows down in his 80s, even if he says he’s happy. While Emanuel seems to acknowledge the huge importance of mentorship, a role that the elderly can and do play, he devalues it nonetheless as a ‘constriction of our ambitions and expectations.’”

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Where's the DNR?

At a duplicate bridge game today, a delightful 91 year old lady I'll call Joan slumped over. A retired Cardiologist at the table, checked her pulse and said she had died. He left to break the news to her husband who lived about 4 miles away. No CPR was initiated because her friends said that she wouldn't want resuscitation and had completed her POLST form (which was in her home).

911 was called and arrived about 10 minutes into the event. I mentioned to them that I didn't believe that Joan wanted CPR. I was told, "Sorry sir, we have to do our job unless we have a spouse or document telling us to hold off."

Joan's friends unfortunately witnessed the technological imperative that 911 calls mandate. Her blouse was stripped back and chest bared, leads applied, an IV started, along with CPR and a few defibrillation shock attempts. Her body was then transported to the hospital where the ER doctor could pronounce that she indeed had died.

The 911 Medics were only doing their job. Joan had done her best by having had the discussions with her providers and her husband. She clearly didn't want resuscitation and had completed her documents, but she happened to be in a place where that wasn't clear. So in a real-time situation like this in a public place where a witnessed cardiac arrest occurs, what could prevent someone like Joan from basically having a medical procedure (CPR) without consent?

Some states have laws that address the issue by promoting the use of DNR Bracelets. has a number of these listed. So if you are one of the "frail elderly" still active away from your home where your POLST/DNR instructions are kept, please consider wearing such a bracelet. It may not always be honored, but it greatly improves your chances that your wishes will be respected. In the future perhaps we will have a registry, smart card, or other means to immediately find medical information.

Also, please check out to see if it's available in your zip code. You can verify your phones and input whatever health information you wish. That way, when 911 is called from your phone, the dispatcher will have your basic information on the initial screen. It's one more important safeguard to coordinate our care.

Update: I found paramedics got Joan's heart restarted so she was placed in ICU attached to multiple tubes and a ventilator and, as would be expected. She is completely unresponsive. I also found out that she's 95, not 91.  The course over the next days included the following: brain scans, neurology consultations, second opinions, testing of brain stem function to determine brain death. But the real need was for the ICU team to bring the family together in a caring way and use family conferencing to attempt to reach agreement to allow her to die. Shared decision making requires experience and training. About 70% of deaths in the ICU are from withdrawal of life support. Joan will likely follow that path. So sad, it's hard to die anymore. It took her 4 more days to die in the hospital.

One bridge player after this event sent a copy of her POLST to the California approved vendor in order to receive this medallion which can be worn as a necklace. 911 responders are trained to treat this as a valid DNR order in California. Other states such as Wisconsin have similar laws supporting the use of certified bracelets or medallions.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Diane Rehm - an advocate for us all

Diane Rehm
I was fortunate to hear Diane Rehm speak at Seattle's Town Hall last evening.  She had credibility with this packed audience, many who had followed her during her 37 years on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show. As a 79 year old woman she spoke of the death of her beloved husband. In assisted care with advanced Parkinson’s Disease, he ended his life by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED). Her book, My Own Way, reveals the difficult path of finding support for his choice (laws prohibit physician assistance in dying in Maryland) and promotes her strong advocacy for death with dignity (DWD). This has sparked some controversy at NPR, however Diane is on a mission to reach out to us all. She might smile a bit finding that the Seattle Times labels her as a “rebel.
As this point, she states she’s “stepping away from the microphone”, but will continue to advocate for choice by speaking and writing.  She pleaded with the audience to have the “the conversation” with their loved ones as most important way to have choices their respected. “You can sign all those papers, but they won’t mean much unless your loved ones understand and agree about your choices.”
I wish she had emphasized the durable power of attorney for health care (DPOA-HC), which is the most important document.  It truly helped me, as doctor, to know who had the legitimate right to make decisions when the patient could no longer speak for themselves. But that wasn’t her focus in this presentation.
Although I strongly support the DWD movement, only about one in five hundred deaths in Washington and Oregon are from this mode.  Good hospice and palliative care are a much more common way of exiting this life – and are still underutilized.  So my plea with Diane is to show that there can also be control in the mode of dying in many situations without having to invoke physician assisted death (DWD).  But as she said, “Choice is the key.”
Often we don’t understand the choices.  After all, we get no practice in that we hopefully only die once.  The choices are often nuanced to the particular situation.  It’s hardly ever black and white.  Good communication, listening, caring, and focusing on my wishes – that’s what I pray for at my own life’s end.  May we all have an advocate like Diane Rehm.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"The Fragile Species" - #2

Continuing excerpts from “The Fragile Species” by Lewis Thomas :  “Even so, aging will still be aging, and a strange process posing problems for every human being, and perhaps the approach of medical specialists should become less reductionist and more general.  They may wish to view the whole person rather than concentrating on the singularities of individual diseases. The word ‘holistic’ was invented in the 1920’s by General Jan Smuts to provide shorthand for the almost self-evident truth that any living organism, and perhaps any collection of organisms, is something more than the sum of its working parts.  I wish holism could remain a respectable term for scientific usage, but, alas, it has fallen in bad company.  Science itself is really a holistic enterprise, and no other word would serve quite as well to describe it.  Years ago, the mathematician Poincare wrote, ‘Science is built up with facts as a house is with stones, but a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.’  The word is becoming trendy, a buzzword, almost lost to science.”

Friday, January 22, 2016

Lewis Thomas - thoughts on aging from "The Fragile Species"

One of my favorite essayists is Lewis Thomas.  He wrote a long series of essays about the human condition many of which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Subsequently, they were collected in three wonderful volumes:  The Fragile Species, The Lives of a Cell, and The Medusa and the Snail.  Over the next several days, I’ll be sharing some of his thinking about aging.  Educated at Princeton and Harvard Medical School, Thomas held many prestigious professorships in pediatrics, medicine, pathology, and biology:
“It is abundantly clear that the problem of aging is a proper field for scientific study and one of the broadest of all fields in human biology.  The array of specific questions to be asked is long and impressive, and each question is a hard one requiring close and attentive scrutiny by the best practitioners of basic science and clinical medicine.  And, as the answers come in, there is no doubt that medicine will be able to devise new technologies for coping with the things that go wrong in the process of aging.  This is an optimistic appraisal but not overly so, provided we are careful with that phrase “things that go wrong.”  There is indeed an extensive pathology of aging, one thing after another goes wrong, failure after failure, and the cumulative impact of these failures is what most people have in mind and fear as the image of aging.  But behind these ailments, often obscured by individual pathologies, is a quite different phenomenon: normal aging, which is not a disease at all, but a stage of living that cannot be averted or bypassed except in one totally unsatisfactory way.  Nonetheless, we regard aging these days as a sort of slow death with everything going wrong.”  Ed. note – more to follow later

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A thank you letter to David Bowie from a palliative care doctor

Palliative care providers sometimes have a hard time being heard - yet alone listened to in the cacophony of hospital rhythms.  Yet they often provide the needed holistic approach in caring for us nearing life's end.  This British doctor was taken not only with David Bowie's music but also his approach at death's door:
"Your death at home. Many people I talk to as part of my job think that death predominantly happens in hospitals, in very clinical settings, but I presume you chose home and planned this in some detail. This is one of our aims in palliative care, and your ability to achieve this may mean that others will see it as an option they would like fulfilled. The photos that emerged of you some days after your death, were said to be from the last weeks of your life. I do not know whether this is correct, but I am certain that many of us would like to carry off a sharp suit in the same way that you did in those photos. You looked great, as always, and it seemed in direct defiance of all the scary monsters that the last weeks of life can be associated with." 

Sunday, October 18, 2015


a poem by Jeffrey Harrison

The maple limb severed
by a December storm
still blossoms in May
where it lies on the ground,

its red tassels a message
from the other side,
like a letter arriving
after its writer has died.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ain't No Way to Die - Rapping in the ICU

There’s lots of talk about having “the conversation” with loved ones and warnings about being enmeshed in the medical-industrial complex as we are dying.  As Atul Gawande put it in Being Mortal, “Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to their very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by the imperatives of medicine, technology, and strangers.”

In a fast paced rapping video really meant for our kids and grandkids, here’s Ain’t The Way To Die, based on the Eminem and Rihanna masterpiece Love The Way You Lie.  Send it on to the younger generation if you want them to understand!  (And scroll down on the link for the lyrics if needed.)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

In Belgium has the Slippery Slope Begun in "Death with Dignity"?

There is controversy in Belgium about physician assisted suicide in patients with non-terminal illness.  Click here to read the New Yorker article.

“Last year, thirteen per cent of the Belgians who were euthanized did not have a terminal condition, and roughly three per cent suffered from psychiatric disorders. In Flanders, where the dominant language is Dutch, euthanasia accounts for nearly five per cent of all deaths.”  (In Washington and Oregon it is 0.2% of all deaths.) Some physicians who actively support euthanasia have concerns about “the cowboys” who push the limits on accepting patients who are not terminal, but find life unacceptable for whatever reason.  They see no difference between helping patients who are actively dying and helping a non-terminal patient die.  These controversial physicians feel that if a patient wants to die, then they support their autonomy.  Anything else is paternalism!  Has the slippery slope begun?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Patient or Person

The patient was wheeled into the amphitheater classroom in front of 125 medical students.  Francis Wood Sr, the graying Chief of Medicine was holding forth for us that day.  “Students today I’m going to show you a very interesting case.”

Then he paused as if collecting his thoughts. “Now I’ve just made two mistakes in introducing Mrs. Ellison.  What were they?

We sat there not having any idea what he was talking about.  We had been immersed in pathology, disease, physical exams, and seeing patients.  Dr. Wood said, “Well, first of all I introduced Mrs. Ellison as a case.  What’s wrong with that?  I don’t think she wants to be a ‘case’ but really thinks of herself as a person.  We need to respect the fact she’s a person with a disease – not just a disease we happen to be interested in.  Secondly, when I identified her as ‘interesting’, I wasn’t really talking about her, but about her disease.  In a sense I was allying myself with the disease against the patient!”

Dr. Wood was the person who led me to choose Internal Medicine for residency training.  I hoped to learn about people, the human condition and what can go right or wrong in the spans of our lives. My Dad was my other mentor.  An old-style GP he had a small office, delivered babies, gave ether anesthesia, did minor surgery, etc.  He knew families and they knew him.  He knew he was aging when he was delivering the next generation of babies.  “Jim, get to know the families, what they do, what they value, and try to gain their trust.”

But something’s happened in our rush to modernize care with new “efficiencies.”  For example: every Tuesday, in  “hospital X” your doctor changes – a new Hospitalist takes over.  They review the records as they inherit 12-15 new patients.  Their job is to speedily move you through the hospital and off to Skilled Nursing or home or some other venue such as an Adult Family Home.  There’s a name for this:  “Transfer Trauma”.  We have more technology, but less continuity.  We must ask, “does anyone really know me, know my family, understand my fears and hopes?”  Perhaps some can afford a “concierge doctor” as a bridge, but it’s no solution for most folks.  Hopefully, we will have loved ones to be strong advocates and fill in some of the gaps.  We need to be a person, not an “interesting case.”

Monday, May 11, 2015

What are Our Rights in Nursing Homes?

Are you familiar with resident rights in nursing homes, adult family homes, and assisted living facilities?  There is extensive Washington state law addressing rights.
Here are a few for you (or via your power of attorney, or guardian).  Unfortunately the law in some states is not as robust in terms of protecting resident rights.
  • Safe, clean, comfortable and home like environment
  • Notice of rights, rules, and policies
  • Fees & notice disclosure
  • Approving your plan of care
  • Privacy and confidentiality
  • Rights pertaining to transfer/discharge
  • Grievances are addressed
  • Control over funds/financial affairs
  • Protection from chemical/physical restraints
  • Personal property protection
  • Privacy for mail (arrives unopened) and phone calls
  • Privacy for visits
  • You do not have to sign waivers that release the facility of liability for losses of personal property or injury
Although most people would like their final days at home, many die in hospitals or nursing homes.  Society needs to be responsible so that we may have protections for personal dignity and also have strong advocates for us.  We actually gain many rights when in long term care, but often aren't informed.

Friday, May 1, 2015

How Dead Do You Have to Be?

As technology advances, we are faced with multiple ethical challenges that were unthinkable in the past.  In 1962 a new era of lifesaving began.  The first outpatient kidney dialysis clinic was started by Dr. Belding Scribner in Seattle.  Suddenly there was a lot of demand for treatment but very limited facilities.  Ethics Committees were formed to struggle with allocation of scarce resources - labeled "God Squads" by residents.

Dialysis wasn't an ideal long-term solution.  Subsequently, organ transplantation became available - but again there is a shortage of kidney, hearts, lungs, livers, etc.  Many folks die while on the waiting list.  Living donors are sometimes available but the number of organs for transplant still falls far short.

A recent article about brain death and imminent death was published, where a patient with ALS wanted to donate organs when he was at the point of imminent death - not waiting until brain death when organs are less viable.  It's an interesting, difficult, and sad dilemma to know the right answer.  Is it "do no harm"?  Or respect a patient's autonomy when dying?  Or protecting a hospital's statistics?  Hopefully, there will be a way to address the needs - and to focus on saving lives.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Palliative Care is a Win Win for Everyone

It's hard to believe that I was never really taught about how to control pain when I was in medical training.  Well that's not quite true.  I was told to avoid getting patients "hooked" on narcotics and this was certainly drilled into nurse training also.  We learned about disease and disease processes, but not about a holistic view of the patient in their social milieu.

Partly because of this, and our funding mechanisms, medicare and insurance companies organized to pay for disease care - especially procedures.  Procedures are easy to count and easier to control than "soft" care such as a doctor spending 30 minutes trying to sort out a confusing medical condition.  The "procedure based" specialists like radiologists, orthopedists, ophthamologists, gastroenterologists, and cardiologists do disproportionately well historically playing by established reimbursement rules, even though the procedures may be over-utilized.  Costs soar.

Finally we're beginning to look at global costs related to uncoordinated care, poverty, cultural barriers, etc.  The Institute of Medicine (IOM) has a key report on "Dying in America".  This report from the Center to Advance Palliative Care highlights the current changes in health care delivery under Medicare and Obamacare.  It's a must read.  The needed changes appear to be gaining traction.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What's a Good Death?

When someone asked a philosopher how he would like to die he replied, "When I least expect it."  Woody Allen in a similar vein stated, "I'm not afraid of dying, I just don't want to be there when it happens."

Although we all may have similar wishes, we are vastly more likely to age slowly, acquire a few chronic conditions, have periodic illnesses with declining health, and then have some kind of "terminal event."  So most of us have time to think about a "good death", but what does that really mean?

There was a recent piece in the New York Times written by a knowledgeable woman, whose father didn't die the way he wanted to - no heroic interventions at the end.  He had a sudden cardiac arrest with subsequent cardiac resuscitation and invasive ICU care.  Once the CPR was initiated it was unclear at to whether her father would survive.  To me it demonstrates that all situations can't be anticipated and that often families need to sit down with the medical team participating in shared decision making.

So what is a good death?  I was asked this question by our local NPR radio station.  After talking to many patients over the years, the following seems most important to have our own wishes adhered to:
  • Pain and symptom management - palliative care consultation and hospice are often needed
  • Preparation for death – spiritual & natural - advance directives - POLST if indicated.
  • Completion of goals - each individual has his/her own wishes
  • Contributing to others – a legacy
  • At peace surrounded by loved ones - most people wish for a home or home-like death.  The ICU isn't a peaceful place necessarily, but at times I've felt a spiritual connection when tubes are removed, monitors turned off, and the family holding and talking quietly to their loved one at the end.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ezekiel's Flawed Ethics - the Die at 75 Plan

Ezekiel Emanuel wrote an article for the Atlantic on "Why I Hope to Die at 75 - An argument that society and families—and you—will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and promptly."  As an Oncologist and Ethicist, he says he speaks for himself but implies not so subtlety that it may be best to avoid the consequences of aging and declining health (which probably really begins around age 25).  For himself he would not want any medical tests or therapeutics after age 75.  He argues that the productive years of life are over, that accomplishments should be complete, and that prolonging aging and its consequences is something he wishes to avoid.

Recently, I gave a talk called "Your Life Your Choices" to a couple of life-care communities where the average age was near 80 and most were still in independent living.  Many had lost their spouses and most, by definition, had some degree of declining health.  Sounds depressing doesn't it?  Yet these folks were active - in their faith groups, with their grandchildren, swimming, singing, playing and performing in bands or quartets, line dancing, playing tennis (a few), golf, and enjoying each others company.  There was keen recognition and understanding about end-of-life issues.  Many had POLST forms saying they would never want CPR, but they would accept removing an appendix, taking an antibiotic, and even a new knee or hip. 

I showed these groups a video of CPR, and talked for about 90 minutes about having "the conversation" with loved ones, designating a durable power of attorney for health care, etc. It seems that Emanuel wants to shock us into accepting that we need to face up to the declining years and make plans so I discussed Emanuel's proposal in these groups.  None of them felt they should have died 5 years ago!

Emanuel states that his family disagrees with his wishes.  I hope he can find someone to follow them and respect his autonomy.  But what if he comes in with an infected hangnail with an ascending infection threatening his life with septicemia.  At age 74 take an antibiotic, but decline at 75?

So I think I get his over-exaggerated point that we need to think carefully about prolonging the dying process when we are at an end.  But, with due respect, I think his ethics are flawed.  He is discounting the delight of being old and still functional.  Yes, we won't win a Nobel Prize.  But how about the joy of attending a grandchild's concert, going up to the lake cabin once more with the family, traveling together to Alaska, singing old favorites, volunteering at the food bank or library, or going to the opera.  Ezekiel, there is no age cutoff for enjoying family, friends, and the pleasures of life.  Even though you say you don't support "death with dignity", you are basically proposing that for yourself when you would even decline taking an antibiotic after age 75.

As we die, we leave a legacy for those we leave behind.  Ethical wills, sharing our values, showing love, and supporting our loved ones - yes, even as our spouses age.  There's nothing wrong with a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair - enjoyable life can still be there for many of us.  There can be growth in our spiritual life and new-found loves even as we experience loss.  The old saying "getting old isn't for sissies" rings true because aging does have its trials.  Personally I think rekindling an old forgotten friendship is more important, and perhaps as satisfying, compared to your climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

At age 76, as I write this, I think your ethical view of aging is at best cloudy and seems based on fear of loss rather than autonomy.  Yes, there are problems of cost, resources, and "getting out of the way" for the next generation.  But with my new corneas, I can drive safely again.  I love playing tennis doubles with my 80 year old friends twice a week.  Should I have resigned to go blind at 75?  At your healthy age of 58 Ezekiel, you seem to have a peculiar disconnect with those aging and declining in health.  So please re-write your article at age 74!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Voluntary Stopping Eating and Drinking (VSED)

Just today I attended the Washington State End of Life Coalition annual meeting where there is always a lot of sharing of stories.  Phyllis Shacter from Bellingham gave a very moving account of her husband's onset of Alzheimer's and how he ultimately decided the path of VSED while he was still mentally competent.  Here's a link to her TEDxBellington Talk:

I don't know if you've seen the French movie, "Amour", which is a beautiful but sad story about an aging French couple with deteriorating health.  Their path of dying was unsupported and tragic.  Please see this link ( for more discussion about the movie and VSED.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Brittany Maynard's Way of Dying

Brittany Maynard has passed from this life.  This brave but unfortunate 29 year old woman with incurable progressive brain cancer drew public attention by choosing to go public with her choice about end of life care.

"Brittany suffered increasingly frequent and longer seizures, severe head and neck pain, and stroke-like symptoms," according to a statement Sunday night from Sean Crowley, spokesman for Compassion & Choices, a national nonprofit working to expand end-of-life options.  "As symptoms grew more severe, she chose to abbreviate the dying process by taking the aid-in-dying medication she had received months ago. This choice is authorized under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act. She died as she intended — peacefully in her bedroom, in the arms of her loved ones," the statement said.

Her decision to post a video and promote dialogue is stimulating an important conversation.  Brittany did not want to die and felt that the term suicide did not ring true in her case.  She did not want to suffer. As the end approached she wanted to be able to die on her own terms.  In the comments to this article, many supported Brittany but a few felt that dying should not be by "assisted suicide".  Indeed, with good palliative and hospice care, "death with dignity" is relatively rare even in the states where it is legal - Oregon, Washington, Vermont, and Montana.  About 1 in 500 deaths are by self ingestion of prescribed lethal drugs.

The fears of the "slippery slope" leading to wider use or abuse have not materialized, but these fears are not unfounded.  I'm a little surprised that Oregon does not keep track of the "tourists" who come to their state for "death with dignity".  It's important to be transparent here.  Some critics fear the "culture of death" to such an extent that they oppose the POLST form and continue to promote the irrational fear of government sponsored "Death Panels".

To me the positive aspects of a case like Brittany's are not only the battle over "death with dignity".  Rather, it's a flash point to get us talking about the inevitable fact that we are all going to die.  In this conversation, we need to talk about our values, hopes, and fears.  Most importantly we need to appoint a person as our Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, because there's a 50% chance we will be too sick to participate in the discussion about our wishes when we are near life's end.

Thank you and God bless, Brittany.  You are in a better place now.  And you have left behind a legacy that we all need to have choices and have the important conversation about end of life wishes.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Access to Morphine - a Human Right

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, it's noted that access to morphine is quite limited in the poorer countries:  "As with all successful human rights movements, we need to put a face on the injustice of untreated cancer pain. Witnessing a clinic full of poor children with advanced cancer, crying in agony, should convince anyone that access to morphine is a human right."

Palliative Care as a specialty is a relatively recent innovation in the USA.  More attention is now being paid to end-of-life situations, the access to palliative care even in the USA varies widely.  Morphine costs just pennies, but the concerns over narcotic abuse has limited its use worldwide.  I remember doctors and nurses not wanting to give too much over fear of addiction.  I'd say, "Look, the patient is dying and suffering.  Do you really think addiction to morphine is a concern?"

Careful titration of morphine at the end of life is a blessing.  It reduces pain and shortness of breath plus it produces calm and even euphoria thereby improving the quality of life in life's final days.  It's time to heed the call.  Let's continue to promote the appropriate use of morphine world wide.  It's inexpensive and doable.  It's not only the right thing to do, it's a human right.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Institute of Medicine's Report on Dying in America

 Recently the Institute of Medicine has issued a comprehensive report on end of life care in America.  This two year review by a diverse and highly qualified committee was supported in part by an anonymous donor.  The complete report and summaries are available to download in a PDF format.

See this for a video report by the pannel.

A recent editorial in the New York Times discusses just how broken and difficult to navigate our "system" of health care can become.  Do we have the ability to improve?  Yes, but not without a lot of changes which are recommended in the Institute of Medicine's report.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

End of Life Conversations - Progress?

Much is being made of the AMA's recommendation to reimburse doctors for the time they take in having end-of-life discussions with their patients.  The recommendations appear to have a good chance of being covered by Medicare and certainly are a step in the right direction.  But will one conversation and the completed documents really work?  Well, like so many other situations - it depends!

How skilled is the medical provider in having the conversation?  What kind materials are shared?  Videos?  Pamphlets?  Web sites?  What's the follow up?  Are the loved ones involved?  And, most importantly, does completion of the documents really affect end of life care.  We only die once so we get no practice at this or being a critically ill patient.  So how will we really understand the choices and make sure they are known?

There is some data that advance directives don't work, at times aren't honored, well prepared, or even available when needed.

Respecting Choices has attacked the problem successfully and systematically and should be a guiding force showing us how to do advance care planning in an effective programmatic fashion.  On the home front, I've been involved in presenting programs in the community called "Your Life Your Choices".  This program lasts 90 minutes and is well received but only scratches the surface of the complex choices.

A single reimbursable visit for an end-of-life discussion is a good place to start - but much more is needed in order to have an organized way to provide the care that the patient understands and truly wants.  There are technology drivers in medicine that can put a lot of us the ICU on life support.  The conversation and the directives can help, but often aren't definitive.

The POLST form is the most definitive document, but isn't available in many states.  It basically puts your wishes into medical orders which are legal and binding.

So it is beneficial to pay doctors to have this 15 minute discussion and have documentation of the patient's wishes carried out.  But we need to avoid a hasty and mechanistic way of doing this.  The conversation is never easy, straightforward, or simple.  Lots of clarification and questions need to be addressed.  The systems like Respecting Choices (above) address this well.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Forever Young - Pete Seeger at 91

As I grow older, I find it so refreshing to be around my grandchildren.  It's their idealism mixed with innocence and craziness that attracts me and carries me back many years.  Also, I find it exciting and pleasing when my contemporaries "act young" - being willing to overlook their health complaints, to try new adventures, to volunteer, to connect with others, to sing and to dance.

All this reminds me of  Bob Dylan's song, "Forever Young".  Also when Steve Jobs died, Norah Jones played this song in tribute.

But my all time favorite version of "Forever Young" is the 91 year old Pete Seeger voicing this song with the Rivertown Children's Choir from Beacon, NY - Pete's home town along the Hudson River.  Pete couldn't really sing at that age, so a voice-over with the children's choir was professionally produced with amazing video and sound mixing.

He died peacefully on January 27, 2014, at the age of 94.  He was chopping wood until 10 days before his death.  According to Wikipedia, "When asked about his religious or spiritual views, Seeger replied: 'I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods. I feel part of nature.  Or looking up at the stars. [I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.'"

May Pete's charm, enthusiasm, and music keep us all forever young.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Medical Ethics - Paternalism vs Autonomy

I was taught in medical school (some 50 years ago) that doctors had a special duty to protect the patient.  That seemed self evident and logical.  "Do no harm" was a first principle dating back to Hippocrates. However the teaching I received extended the concept to also protect the patient from bad news, and to make "the right" decision for them - not necessarily including them in the conversation or decision making because "it would be too hard on them.".

"Students, you should never tell a patient of the diagnosis of cancer," pontificated our chief of surgery.  "You should protect them and not give them a fatal diagnosis.  Do not tell them that the cancer has progressed, but do let a trusted family member know."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

When to Consider Boerhaave's Syndrome

Mary, at age 77, fell and was admitted to the hospital with a hip fracture and had surgery the following day.  Post-operatively she received narcotics for moderate pain.  Unfortunately she had vomiting and retching, then developed severe abdominal pain.  She had a history of a prior appendectomy, prior gall bladder removal, moderate COPD, and mild heart failure.

Accompanying the pain, her blood pressure fell, she became short of breath, and her oxygen levels fell.  This rapidly progressed.  Cultures were taken for infection, a chest X-Ray done, and antibiotics initiated.  Her kidneys began to malfunction and early signs of shock were present.

Her doctors thought of aspiration pneumonia, esophagitis, a dissecting aneurysm, heart attack, pneumonia, and pulmonary embolism - but were on the wrong track.  The X-Ray should have helped but was interpreted as not showing free air around the lungs or in the soft tissues.  A subsequent CT scan however, did show an abnormal collection of air in these areas.

Finally after 18 hours of going down the wrong path, a diagnosis of a ruptured esophagus was considered.  This was confirmed by putting some contrast dye down the esophagus showing it to leak into the surrounding tissues.  Also, an enzyme only present in saliva was present in the fluid from around the lung.

She was taken to surgery for repair 24 hours after presenting with pain, at a time when the mortality begins to approach 50 - 75%.  Unfortunately she continued to deteriorate and ultimately was placed on comfort care prior to dying.

Comment:  Herman Boerhaave was a brilliant Dutch physician, botanist, and humanist who, in 1724, described a corpulent patient's proclivity toward self-inducted vomiting in allow him to indulge in further overeating.  At autopsy his patient, Baron Jan Van Wassenaer, had olive oil and roast duck flesh outside an esophageal tear.  The condition known as Boerhaave's Syndrome is relatively rare but one of those bits of knowledge that needs to be in the thinking of surgeons and critical care physicians.  Unfortunately a delay in diagnosis of 24 hours leads to a very high mortality.  Samuel Johnson has written an interesting biography of Boerhaave.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

CPR Without Consent

Agnes was out shopping at her local corner store.  At age 82 her body was beginning to show typical signs of aging.  She had survived breast cancer surgery, a hip replacement, and cataract surgery.  Her doctors told her she had osteoporosis and low Vitamin D.  She took medications for her hypertension, cholesterol, and osteoporosis.  Her spine had begun to curve and her gait was a few steps slower.  Yet, with her shopping cart she still enjoyed her trips to the store.  Her best friend had suffered a cardiac arrest recently and didn't survive the hospital stay.  She discussed this with her retirement home personnel and decided she never would want CPR.  A "Do-Not-Resuscitate" order was initiated by completing a POLST form (Physician's Order for Life Sustaining Treatment).  She made copies of the POLST form giving them to her physician and retirement home staff.

While at the corner store, Agnes felt light headed and sat for a moment but then slumped to the floor.  Shoppers at the store immediately started CPR and 911 summoned the Medics.  With the standard 1.5 to 2" compressions of the sternum, multiple ribs were broken and the lungs were later found to be punctured.  Her heart rhythm was "shockable" and after 5 shocks, she stabilized and was taken to a nearby ICU.  The next few days were stormy both medically and ethically.  The hospital staff felt they had preserved a life, yet the family said she was ready to "pass on" and didn't want the heroic life support.  Finally the family and POLST form wishes prevailed and she was "allowed" to die in the ICU after the tubes were removed.

Comment:  Society generally prohibits us from medically or surgically treating a patient without their informed consent.  However society places, quite naturally, a high value on preserving life.  Since the 1960's CPR has been evolving and improving.  It has been popularized on multiple TV shows such as ER, where the survival rates approach 66%, much higher that the real word data (which continues to improve).

The "frail elderly" are a particular problem because the trauma of CPR may cause more harm than good in some individuals.  The statistics of young people don't apply to the elderly.  And many elderly just don't want CPR saying, "I've had a full life and having my heart stop wouldn't be a bad way to go."

Yet all of us are "signed up" for CPR, unless there's a really clear way to avoid it.  Some families simply don't call 911, some have POLST forms, or some spouses and caregivers are able intercept the process by demonstrating they have power of attorney for health care.

The American Bar Association has come up with a smart phone app to store advance directives and other medical data which might be helpful to the techie generation.  Some states have free registries and there is a fee based national registry for advance care documents, but finding these can be difficult in the acute situation.

The frustrating bottom line for the "frail elderly" is that very few of us have had an informed consent discussion about the pros and cons of CPR.  And even if we decide, "Heck, I'd never want anything like that", a lot can still go wrong in terms of knowing and respecting our wishes.  Even a "No Code" tattoo on your chest isn't legally binding!  So in addition to having "the conversation" with your doctor and loved ones, try to come up with a plan if you really want to avoid CPR.  One thought is to electronically store any POLST/DNR orders with 911 responders.  That way, when they are summoned, the orders will be immediately available.   This may a concept worth field testing.

Friday, April 25, 2014

A Moral Community in the ICU

When I entered the room, my patient was surrounded by worried family.  They had lots of questions.  My concern was that I didn't know either the patient or family.  Dan had been brought to the ICU after a cardiac arrest outside the hospital.  The medics had gotten the heart restarted with CPR and shocks, but Dan was unconscious and on a ventilator.  So how to begin?

I introduced myself and explained that I needed to examine Dan and get more information from the family, then we would see what else we needed to do.  The anxiety was palpable.  He was soon to also be seen by the neurologist.  The cardiologist felt that his heart was "stable" and that he had had an arrhythmia, not a heart attack.

A son from Minneapolis was calling in.  The two other children at the bedside and Sam's wife, Marilynne, were in tears.

So how do I proceed from here?  The medical evaluations were pretty straight forward.  But communicating with the family is something I only learned over time.

Family conferences and  decision making with the medical providers occurs daily in the ICU, but the effectiveness varies widely.  A medical social worker and I developed a shared decision making pathway for medical providers to use.  One of the steps in the process is the concept of forming a moral community.

We would invite the family to meet in a quiet place, have a telephone/speaker for those unable to be there, and go around the room introducing ourselves.  The moral community concept is much like what goes on in an ethics committee discussion. The discussion centers around the patient's wishes and values respecting the patient's autonomy.  The community of caregivers (medical and family) begins to form around those values and wishes.  Caring, empathy and sharing are all key to begin to have the group act functionally as a moral community.  Modeling of these behaviors at times helps deal with the anger and frustration often present.

For more information please see our publication about a guide to shared decision making in serious illness.

Dan's family was devastated that he suffered irreversible brain death following his cardiac arrest.  Using shared decision making they agreed with removal of life support.  Allowing transparency, showing caring, focusing on Dan's wishes and values - all of these gave the family a sense that they were doing the right thing.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Is the Use of the POLST Form Controversial?

Susan was 76 and dying at home in the days before Hospice and before the use of the POLST form.  A neighbor came in the relieve Susan's daughter who went to the store.  Suddenly Susan stopped breathing and the neighbor called 911.  The medics came and, not having instructions to the contrary, did CPR and brought her to our ER unconscious and intubated.  The ER physician called me in the ICU saying, "We got a sad situation here.  He explained what happened and that the daughter, who finally found Mom in the ER, was distraught saying, "None of this should have happened."

We let the patient die in the ER, had social service work with the family.  The medics were upset that they'd performed CPR ("medical last rites") in such a patient.  The ER wasn't pleased to have a patient die there but a hospital admission seemed pointless.

The POLST (Physician's Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment) was pioneered in Oregon in 1991 and has gradually worked its way state by state so that about 26 states now have a POLST statute.  It has been validated in Oregon to be effective in honoring a patient's wishes.  The medics I have worked with have praised the POLST form because it tells them exactly what to do, or not do, if they are called and the form is available.

The POLST is most commonly advocated for those expected to die within a year or the very frail elderly.  The form translates the patient's values and wishes into actual medical orders which will be honored by 911 responders.  In Washington the form must be signed by the patient (or surrogate) and the medical provider.

But it's not without controversy and the criticism sounds much like the fear over Death Panels which has, gratefully, died away.  Conservative Catholic bishops in Wisconsin and a few media sites have warned of the dire consequences of POLST forms.  Their criticism implies that they are Do Not Resuscitate forms that also withhold antibiotics, fluids and nutrition.  Actually the forms do allow for a wide range of choices from full care, limited care, or comfort care.  They are intended to put the patient's wishes into real time medical orders.  They can be revoked by the patient or surrogate if circumstances change.

Probably the most common site for the use of the POLST is with Hospice patients, who are expected to die within six months.  But there is a tendency now to use (or even try to require) the use of the POLST form in retirement community facilities and nursing homes.  Recently I gave a talk about advance care planning to a well known retirement community in Seattle.  "How many of you have completed your Living Will and Power of Attorney for Health Care?", I asked.  80 or 80 responded positively.  But the surprise was that 70 of 80 had completed POLST forms.  These were folks probably from their mid seventies up into the 90's but all were in independent living (no assisted living, etc.).  To me this is a surprising use of the POLST form and goes beyond its initial intention.  Do all of the 75 year olds really know their wishes about a ventilator for pneumonia, or CPR, etc?  Of course the POLST form can say, "Do Everything" but then it becomes redundant.  Also, in a practical sense how is the POLST form going to be reviewed or retrieved if the patient is in the dining room or gym or out shopping?  Registries can be tried but real-time access is needed in the acute situation for the POLST to prevent unwanted CPR (hence bright color is used so the medics can spot it).  However, some aging rather healthy folks seem sure that they do not want CPR in any circumstances.

At a talk I gave yesterday in California, a couple showed me the bracelets they were wearing that referred to their completed POLST form.  He was in his 80's and she was a hospice chaplain in her early 70's.  I asked her, "How can you really be sure that you'd not ever want CPR?"  She responded, "I just don't like the odds.  I'd rather pass on tha than risk severe brain damage.  I've had a pleasant life, and a cardiac arrest wouldn't be a bad way to die, ever though their might be a 25% chance of getting me back to my normal self with CPR."  So this use of POLST may have this practical use in certain well informed folks who are sure of their choices, but it seems ill adapted for this.  Will the 911 responders really see their medic alert bracelets and will they really have time to find, thus honor, the POLST?

Even with this latter concern of mine, the benefit of the POLST is huge. Recently, the American Medical Directors Association indorsed the POLST,  But becoming mainstream in our rather broken heath care "system" in the USA will require more time for the POLST.  We can only hope that the remaining states can learn from the pioneering efforts in Oregon.  It indeed honors patient autonomy and choice.  And the states where the POLST is currently used, should have oversight and guidelines for appropriate use.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Vitamins Don't Work - Enough is Enough

When I was in medical school, our nutrition researchers taught us that vitamins didn't do much good and only made expensive urine (where the water soluble ones end up).  We did learn about the classic vitamin deficiencies like scurvy, beriberi, rickets, etc.  But the evidence that healthy people should take vitamins was marginal at best.

Is our search for immortality the reason that we turn to the pill or potion?  Do we continue to look for the fountain of youth that is linked to the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon.  (Though de Leon was really looking for the isle of Bimini rather than Florida and there's no mention historically that he was searching for perpetual youth.)  Yet the myth and tourist site remain popular.

So why do we turn to vitamins, supplements, anti-oxidants, nutriments, etc?  William Osler commented that “the desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals.” Also Osler taught his medical students, "One of the first duties of the physician is to educate the masses not to take medicine."

Osler's concerns have been valid over the years, but often have been drowned out by errant science and the hype of the vitamin and supplement industry.

There have been prominent scientists who have been strong proponents of vitamins and supplements. Linus Pauling discovered the structure of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.  Unfortunately he became a "true believer" in vitamin C and other vitamins: "Pauling is largely responsible for the widespread misbelief that high doses of vitamin C are effective against colds and other illnesses. In 1968, he postulated that people's needs for vitamins and other nutrients vary markedly and that to maintain good health, many people need amounts of nutrients much greater than the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs). And he speculated that megadoses of certain vitamins and minerals might well be the treatment of choice for some forms of mental illness. He termed this approach "orthomolecular," meaning "right molecule." After that, he steadily expanded the list of illnesses he believed could be influenced by "orthomolecular" therapy and the number of nutrients suitable for such use. No responsible medical or nutrition scientists share these views."

Finally in modern times we now have a better view and summary of the ineffectiveness and harms of vitamins and mineral supplements published in the December 13th Annals of Internal Medicine:  "Vitamin and Mineral Supplements in the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer: An Updated Systematic Evidence Review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force"

The bottom line is that vitamin and mineral supplements for healthy individuals don't work and some may be harmful.  The editorial in the same issue concludes:  "β-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements are harmful. Other antioxidants, folic acid and B vitamins, and multivitamin and mineral supplements are ineffective for preventing mortality or morbidity due to major chronic diseases. Although available evidence does not rule out small benefits or harms or large benefits or harms in a small subgroup of the population, we believe that the case is closed— supplementing the diet of well-nourished adults with (most) mineral or vitamin supplements has no clear benefit and might even be harmful. These vitamins should not be used for chronic disease prevention. Enough is enough."

Recently Dr. Oz had a disastrous take-down in a Senate hearing about his "magical" claims of dietary supplements.  This is reported with bitingly epic humor is this epic video.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Medical Industrial Complex is Driving Costs and Overtreatment

"Hey doc, I saw on an ad on the TV last night about this new asthma inhaler.  Shouldn't I give it a try?"  This type of question would occur several times a week.  When I started practicing medicine it was considered unethical to advertise medical treatments.  Now, we're bombarded with enticements for tests and treatments.  The inhaler the patient requested cost $264 a month - more than double what he was currently paying for an effective generic inhaler.

Somehow, we have brought into the hype that more is better, and that if you would just get your mammogram or PSA, that early detection would prevent cancer deaths down the line.  A recent study in the British Medical Journal found that the death rate comparing mammography with annual breast exams was no different.  And a significant number mammography patients went though additional surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy - which was unnecessary.  The effectiveness of PSA monitoring remains controversial, and many prostates are being removed where the negative effects far outweigh a theoretical possible benefit.

The evening news ads bombard us with "low T" warnings and erectile dysfunction treatment promotions.  Somehow, testosterone experimentation is happening, much like the era of  hormonal replacement for all menopausal women.  The warnings of these drugs like blindness, rising PSA, or stroke are gently spoken while watching loving couples swimming or smooching.

A friend is now monitoring her glucose daily, even though she is barely pre-diabetic.  Somehow, she feels the need to be constantly monitored for the condition she does not (yet) have.

A 90 years old wants his cholesterol checked.  He'd like a drug for it that he saw on TV.  Really?

Most of now have a medically attended birth and medically attended death.  We now have the benefit of effective medications for blood pressure, diabetes, and abnormal lipid panels.  But the medical industrial complex wants us to be major consumers - more visits, more tests, more surgeries.  There is some evidence that may be making the industry nervous as health cost increases seem to have leveled a bit.

The industry to struggling a bit to bring out new blockbuster billion dollar drugs.  The dollars that go into the health care system are coming from our pockets and insurance premiums.  Given the waste and inefficiencies in health care delivery, this hurts the entire economy and has allowed the medical-industrial complex to become bloated.  Obviously a balance is needed.

There is bloat in duplication and overuse of high tech equipment.  The fastest way to pay off a new scanner is to run more tests.  The incentives are to do more in the fee for service system.  Pharmacy and device sales reps abound in doctors offices and hospitals.  Ethical lines are blurred when free meals and paid lectures are offered to MD's by the industry.  TV and magazine ads drive up cost and utilization.  Administrators want a lucrative bottom line.

Interestingly, we seem to be at a break point in terms of medical costs.  More is being shifted to patients as companies offer only HSA plans and often high deductibles.  More doctors are becoming salaried.  Malpractice settlements have peaked and appear to be declining with subsequent savings in malpractice premiums.  More efficiencies appear to be evolving.  The congressional budget office has reduced its estimates of Medicare spending by 12% (109 billion) by 2020.

My concern is the that medical industrial complex will become even more aggressive.  The possibilities will be more ads, direct mailings, "free" screenings, discounted surgeries, false claims of testing and treatments, etc.

My advice:  be a careful and cautious consumer.  Don't become medicalized.  And to the medical profession:  be more proactive countering the barrage of biased information we hear and see daily.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cancer? How Much Time Will You Give Me?

Ben's first symptom was coughing up blood.  The cancer had been silently growing for months, if not a few years.  He had no pain or shortness of breath.  The chest X-Ray showed a "5 cm L hilar mass" and the subsequent CT scan showed enlarged lymph nodes and likely spread to the liver.

"So Doc, what is it?  A cancer?  How much time do you give me?"  All these questions on a first visit when I don't really know Ben, his family, or life situation.  As a pulmonologist, this scenario happened once or twice a week.  The patient was usually a smoker but Ben was not.  At age 49, he'd been a basically healthy guy.

I always found it important to say, "I don't know, but let's find out what's going on and here's the plan I'd suggest".  This usually included blood tests, the CT scan, and a bronchoscopy to find the diagnosis and make further plans.  It was far too soon to jump to Ben's future, but Ben said "Come on Doc, give me your educated guess."  I'd usually say, "My crystal ball is cloudy and I can't read your future but I promise I'll tell you all I know as we go along".

Bronchoscopy (from a pulmonologist's point of view) is a pretty simple outpatient procedure.  With the use of lidocaine to the vocal cords and airway and with very light use of short acting sedatives or narcotics a thin flexible scope is passed through the nose (usually) into the airways and everything is seen on a video monitor.  Ben's tumor was evident in the L mainstem bronchus - red rough angry looking tissue.  Biopsies of the tumor were done - and Ben wanted to see the monitor.  I showed him the findings and explained that we would know the diagnosis the next day.

It was a non-small cell carcinoma of the lung - the most common type.  Again Ben asked, "OK now how long to I have."  Small lung cancers that are near the periphery of the lungs have the best outlook and are often curable.  However Ben's cancer was subsequently proven to Stage 3B.

Again, Ben's question and how should I answer it.  Recently in the New York Times a young Neurosurgical Resident posed the question, "How Long Have I Got Left".  Where is any patient on the statistical curve?  How can we begin to know what the response to treatment will be?  Actually in the last decade there have been some significant improvements in treatments and survival in some patients, but the measured improvements are sometimes in months rather than years.

I would say to Ben, "I don't have the powers of a deity and can't see the future, but these are the broad statistics.  I'm hoping you may not only beat the averages but be an outlier.  You are younger and healthier than many of the patients studied.  You're not a statistic.  I'm sending you to the best cancer treatment and research center available so let's see what they have to say.  But it's going to be one day at a time.  I'd like to see you again once a plan is set in place.

Comment:  "Giving a patient time" can be self-fulfilling so doctors must be careful.  On the other hand, refusing to lay out the realistic outcome of other patients (statistics), is denying the patient of information they often want to know.  Staying connected with the patient provides emotional support as they transition to oncologists or surgeons.  It's the human to human connection that makes medicine the most powerful - and humane.  It's also important not to dodge the issue of death.  When the patient reaches the stage of dying, doctor's often fail to tell the patient that it's time for hospice and comfort care.  We need to be comfortable with mortality and frailty - both our own and the patient's.  We need the judgment and wisdom to guide the dying patient to palliative and comfort care.

Friday, November 29, 2013

What's a Type A Continuing Care Retirement Community?

John and Eva had ongoing conversations about their home which was now far too big for their needs and lots of trouble and expense to repair and keep up.  John said, "It's the yard, the leaves, the painting, and general repair and replacement problems.  What's next to go?  The refrigerator or me?"  Eva was tired of shopping and cooking.  Her arthritis was slowing her down.  She told John, "OK, you retired from work, but when do I retire from cooking?"  Also, they were beginning to lose contemporaries and their social life was shrinking.  There was a growing sense of isolation.  Their children and grandchildren had busy lives and couldn't be part of their daily life.

The started looking around at Continuing Care Retirement Communities and found lots of options and a fair amount of confusion about what might be future costs.  They were leaning toward a "Type A" CCRC, but each of those had somewhat different costs, though they were much more inclusive than Type B or C, the latter being fee for service.

But the headaches were just starting.  They had raised four children who were now on their own, but the remnants of their possessions were still in their house along with "stuff" that they had inherited from prior generations.  John read an article about "possession paralysis" in the New York Times and shared it with Eva.  "It fits us doesn't it Eva.  We're both pack-rats and we have been putting off moving partially due to all the "stuff" we have."

So they began to downsize - trips to the library to donate books, trips to Goodwill to donate, giving things away to family, but this hardly made a dent.  "We have all this china, crystal, and silver but there's just no market except for the silver metal.  Don't kids entertain any more?"  The children began to step in with Craig's List, eBay, and hauling stuff out to their own homes and an estate sale.

They finally found the CCRC they were hoping for and it came time to do a pricey buy-in which was painful even though their estate would get 80% of it back.  The housing market was beginning to bounce back and it seemed like a good time to put their home on the market, get a "bridge loan" and plan a move.

Both John and Eva found the whole experience stressful, but couldn't see anyway around it except to continue on in their own home, and hire in help eventually if needed.  Eva said she was so emotionally attached to family things that "possession paralysis" felt very real to her.  Yet she didn't want to handle all the house issues if something happened to John.

It took about 6 months for the house to sell, the CCRC move to occur, and almost that long to dispossess themselves of all their "stuff".  Selections were finally made, charity trucks carted off many boxes, and the "kids" came with U-Haul trucks.

Eva remained in good heath, but within a year of moving into the CCRC, John developed rapid onset Alzheimer's.  He was moved to the Memory Care Unit, while Eva could stay in her independent apartment in the same complex.  She was able to participate in John's care without being overburdened by worry about safety or costs.  His long term care was fully covered and their were no additional expenses.

Comment:  We are on the cusp of having the Boomer Generation entering into the final phases of their lives.  The problems and expense will be huge.  Very few folks have long term care insurance and some still assume that Medicare covers long term care - it doesn't.  We aren't well prepared as a society to deal with these problems.