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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Aggressive medical care remains common at life’s end


A new study finds that most older cancer patients may not have wanted the invasive care they received in the last month of their lives.

By Paula Span


In July, Jennifer O’Brien got the phone call that adult children dread. Her 84-year-old father, who insisted on living alone in rural New Mexico, had broken his hip.


O’Brien is a health care administrator and consultant in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the widow of a palliative care doctor; she knew more than family members typically do about what lay ahead.


James O’Brien, a retired entrepreneur, was in poor health, with heart failure and advanced lung disease after decades of smoking. Because of a spinal injury, he needed a walker. He was so short of breath that, except for quick breaks during meals, he relied on a biPAP, a ventilator that required a tightfitting face mask.


He had standing do-not-resuscitate and do-not-intubate orders, Jennifer O’Brien said. They had discussed his strong belief that “if his heart stopped, he would take that to mean that it was his time.”


Listening in on the phone while a hospital palliative care nurse practitioner talked to her father about his options, Jennifer O’Brien provided a blunt translation: “Dad, your heart and lungs are done.” The next day, he declined surgery to repair his hip.


“He was dying,” she said. “He’d either die comfortably or, with a big surgical incision, he’d die uncomfortably. Or die of something more complicated — potential infections, bowel obstructions, so many things that can happen.” Mortality rates after hip fractures, though improving, remain high.


Her father, who wasn’t cognitively impaired, had decided that surgery was “silly” and unnecessary. She supported his decision and contacted a local hospice.


Families often have to run interference in such scenarios, and a new study in JAMA Network Open helps explain why. The authors, most of them at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, analyzed five years of data from a cancer registry, nursing home assessments and Medicare claims to look at “aggressive end-of-life care” among 146,000 older patients with metastatic cancer.


They compared nursing home residents’ care in the last 30 days of their lives with the care for noninstitutionalized patients living in communities, the lead author, Siran Koroukian, a health services researcher at Case Western Reserve, said.


The team looked for commonly used markers of aggressive care, including cancer treatment, repeated emergency room visits or hospitalizations, admission to an intensive care unit, lack of hospice enrollment until three days before death, and death in a hospital.


“In all probability, hospice should have been considered” for these patients, said Sara Douglas, an author of the study who is an oncology researcher at the Case Western Reserve University School of Nursing.


Yet the majority of both groups — 58% of community dwellers and 64% of nursing home residents — received aggressive treatment in their final 30 days. A quarter underwent cancer treatment: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy.


Although studies repeatedly show that most patients want to die at home, 25% of the community dwellers and almost 40% of the nursing home residents died in hospitals.


Hospice leaders, palliative care specialists, health care reformers and advocacy groups have worked for years to try to lower such numbers. “Patients who received this type of aggressive care experience more pain, actually die sooner, have a much poorer quality of life at the end,” Douglas said. “And their families experience more doubt and trauma.”


Because the researchers used large databases, the study can’t indicate whether some patients actually opted for continued treatment or hospitalization. Some treatments the authors deemed aggressive could instead have been palliative, intended to increase comfort, like radiation to shrink tumors that might impede breathing.


Still, “these are really sobering statistics,” said Douglas White, director of the Center for Ethics and Decision Making in Critical Illness at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.


A lot of factors contribute to invasive actions in patients’ final days and weeks. Doctors, for example, may be reluctant to initiate difficult conversations about what dying patients want, or may be poorly trained in conducting them.


But studies also show that even when crucial discussions take place, patients and surrogate decision-makers frequently misinterpret them. “Families often leave these conversations with much more optimistic expectations than their doctors meant to convey,” White said.


Sometimes, family demands prevail even over the patient’s wishes. Jennifer Ballentine, CEO of the Coalition for Compassionate Care of California, knew that one of her relatives didn’t want high-intensity care if he became terminally ill. But when he developed aggressive prostate cancer at 79, his wife insisted that he pursue treatment.


“He refused,” Ballentine recalled. “He kept saying he just wanted to be in hospice. She kept saying, ‘Absolutely not.’” He capitulated until, after three exhausting months of chemotherapy with several hospital stays, he died in hospice care.


When palliative care is introduced soon after a diagnosis, patients have a better quality of life and less depression, a study of people with metastatic lung cancer found. Though they were less likely to undergo aggressive treatment, they survived longer.


Palliative care doctors, skilled in discussions of serious illness, are scarce in some parts of the country, however, and in outpatient practices.


Adopting a so-called concurrent care approach to hospice might also ease these transitions. The Medicare hospice benefit requires patients to forgo treatment for their terminal illness; hospice through the Veterans Health Administration system, with more liberal criteria, allows patients to receive both treatment and hospice.


A recent study of veterans with end-stage kidney disease, who were likely to die within days if forced to discontinue dialysis, shows the impact of concurrent care. Palliative dialysis — administered less often or for shorter periods than the standard regimen — can help control symptoms like shortness of breath.


Medicare has authorized pilot studies of concurrent care, but for now, patients and families must often seize the reins to make their end-of-life wishes known and determine how best to fulfill them.


Some patients want every possible action taken to extend their lives, even briefly. For those who feel otherwise, asking about palliative care and hospice can open the door to straightforward discussions.


James O’Brien was among the latter. His daughter drove from Little Rock to Santa Fe to spend a quiet day with him. “We had some good time together,” she said. “We talked about what was going to happen.”


She was there as the hospice team provided medication to keep him comfortable and withdrew the biPAP. “It was very peaceful,” she said. “I told him I loved him. I knew he could hear me. I stayed with him until he took his last breath.”

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lekor adams
lekor adams
Dec 05, 2023

In a contemplative examination, we delve into the commonality of aggressive medical care at life's end and highlight the pivotal role played by a hospice nurse in navigating this complex landscape. This exploration sheds light on the challenges and opportunities for compassionate care, offering insights into the valuable contributions that hospice nurses make in guiding individuals and their families through the delicate journey of end-of-life decisions.

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Angelika Argunova
Angelika Argunova
Aug 23, 2023

The juxtaposition of aggressive medical care with the concept of hospice care highlights the urgent need for a broader understanding of end-of-life care options. As the article highlights, aggressive medical interventions, although often well-intentioned, can sometimes overshadow the holistic and compassionate approach offered by hospice care.

Hospice care focuses on quality of life, symptom management, and emotional well-being in the final stages of life. It represents a worthy alternative to advanced medical treatment, shifting the focus from treatment to comfort. This approach recognizes that accepting the end of life with compassion and support is essential not only for the patient, but also for their loved ones.

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