Patients Want To Die At Home, But Home Hospice Care Can Be Tough On Families

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“I’m not anti-hospice at at all,” says Joy Johnston, a writer from Atlanta. “But I think people aren’t prepared for all the effort that it takes to give someone a good death at home.”

Even though surveys show it’s what most Americans say they want, dying at home is “not all it’s cracked up to be,” says Johnson, who relocated to New Mexico at age 40 to care for her dying mother some years ago, and ultimately wrote an essay about her frustrations with the way hospice care often works in the U.S.

Johnston, like many family caregivers, was surprised that her mother’s hospice provider left most of the physical work to her. She says during the final weeks of her mother’s life, she felt more like a tired nurse than a devoted daughter.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, seven in 10 Americans say they would prefer to die at home, when the time comes. And that’s the direction the health care system is moving, too, hoping to avoid unnecessary and expensive treatment at the end of life.

The home hospice movement has been great for patients, says Vanderbilt palliative care physician Parul Goyal — many patients are thrilled with the care they get.

“I do think that when they are at home, they are in a peaceful environment,” Goyal says. “It is comfortable for them. But,” she notes, “it may not be comfortable for family members watching them taking their last breath.”

Still, when it comes to where we die, the U.S. has reached a tipping point. Home is now the most common place of death, according to new research, and a majority of Medicare patients are now turning to hospice services to help make that possible. Fewer Americans these days are dying in a hospital, under the close supervision of doctors and nurses.

Hospice allows a patient deemed to have fewer than six months to live to change the focus of their medical care — from the goal of curing disease, to a new goal of using treatments and medicines to maintain comfort and quality of life. It is a form of palliative care, which also focuses on pain management and quality of life, but can be provided while a patient continues to seek a cure or receive treatments to prolong life.

Usually, hospice care is offered in the home, or sometimes in a nursing home.

Since the mid-1990s, Medicare has allowed the hospice benefit to cover more types of diagnoses, and therefore more people. As acceptance grows among physicians and patients, the numbers continue to balloon — from 1.27 million patients in 2012 to 1.49 million in 2017.

According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Association, hospice is now a $19 billion industry, almost entirely funded by taxpayers. But as the business has grown, so has the burden on families, who are often the ones providing most of the care.

For example, one intimate task in particular changed Joy Johnston’s view of what hospice really means — trying to get her mom’s bowels moving. Constipation plagues many dying patients.

“It’s ironically called the ‘comfort care kit’ that you get with home hospice. They include suppositories, and so I had to do that,” she says. “That was the lowest point. And I’m sure it was the lowest point for my mother as well. And it didn’t work.”

Hospice agencies primarily serve in an advisory role and from a distance, even in the final, intense days when family caregivers, or home nurses they’ve hired, must continually adjust morphine doses or deal with typical end-of-life symptoms, such as bleeding or breathing trouble. Those decisive moments can be scary for the family, says Dr. Joan Teno, a physician and leading hospice researcher at Oregon Health and Science University.

“Imagine if you’re the caregiver, and that you’re in the house,” Teno says. “it’s in the middle of the night, 2 o’clock in the morning, and all of a sudden, your family member has a grand mal seizure.”

That’s exactly what happened with Teno’s mother.

“While it was difficult for me to witness, I knew what to do,” she says.

In contrast, Teno says, in her father’s final hours, he was admitted to a hospice residence. Such residences often resemble a nursing home, with private rooms where family and friends can come and go, and with round-the-clock medical attention just down the hall.

Teno called the residence experience of hospice a “godsend.” But an inpatient facility is rarely an option, she says. Patients have to be in bad shape for Medicare to pay the higher in-patient rate that hospice residences charge. And by the time such patients reach their final days, it’s often too much trouble for them and the family to move.

Hospice care is a lucrative business — now the most profitable type of health care service that Medicare pays for. According to Medicare data, for-profit hospice agencies now outnumber the nonprofits that pioneered the service in the 1970s. But agencies that need to generate profits for investors aren’t building dedicated hospice units or residences, in general, mostly because such facilities aren’t profitable enough.

Joe Shega, chief medical officer at for-profit Vitas, the largest hospice company in the U.S., insists it’s the patients’ wishes, not a corporate desire to make more money, that drives his firm’s business model. “Our focus is on what patients want, and 85 to 90 percent want to be at home,” Shega says. “So, our focus is building programs that help them be there.”

For many families, making hospice work at home means hiring extra help.

‘I guess I’ve just accepted what’s available’

At the kitchen table of her home outside Nashville, hospice patient Jean McCasland is refusing, on the day I visit, to eat a spoonful of peach yogurt. Each morning, nurse’s aide Karrie Velez pulverizes McCasland’s medications in a pill crusher and mixes them into her breakfast yogurt.

“If you don’t, she will just spit them out,” Velez says.

Like a growing share of hospice patients, McCasland has dementia. She needs a service that hospice rarely provides — a one-on-one health attendant for several hours, so the regular family caregiver can get some kind of break each day.


John McCasland (right) of Goodlettsville, Tenn., hired a private caregiver to help with his wife, Jean (left) who suffered from dementia for eight years. Even when hospice took over, he still found he needed the extra help from Karrie Velez (center). Jean died in October after 13 months on home hospice.

When Velez is not around, John McCasland — Jean’s husband of nearly 50 years — is the person in charge at home.

“I have said from the beginning that was my intention, that she would be at home through the duration, as long as I was able,” John says.

But what hospice provided wasn’t enough help. So he’s had to drain their retirement accounts to hire Velez, a private caregiver, out-of-pocket.

Hospice agencies usually bring in a hospital bed, an oxygen machine or a wheelchair — whatever equipment is needed. Prescriptions show up at the house for pain and anxiety. But hands-on help is scarce.

Medicare says hospice benefits can include home health aides and homemaker services. But in practice, that in-person help is often limited to a couple of baths a week. Medicare data reveals that, on average, a nurse or aide is only in the patient’s home 30 minutes, or so, per day.

Jean McCasland’s husband hasn’t complained. “I guess I’ve just accepted what’s available and not really thought beyond what could be,” John says. “Because this is what they say they do.”

Families rarely consider whether they’re getting their money’s worth, because they’re not paying for hospice services directly: Medicare gets the bills. John keeps his monthly statements from Medicare organized in a three-ring binder, but he’d never noticed his agency charges nearly $200 a day, whether there is a health provider in the home on that day or not.

That daily reimbursement also covers equipment rentals and a 24-hour hotline that lets patients or family members consult a nurse as needed; John says that gives him peace of mind that help is a phone call away. “There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that they are keeping an eye on her,” he says.

The rate that hospice charges Medicare drops a bit after the patient’s first two months on the benefit. After reviewing his paperwork, John realizes Medicare paid the hospice agency $60,000 in the first 12 months Jean was on hospice. Was the care his wife got worth that?

“When you consider the amount of money that’s involved, perhaps they would provide somebody around the clock,” he says.

Sue Riggle is the administrator for the McCaslands’ hospice agency, and says she understands how much help patients with dementia need.

“I think everybody wishes we could provide the sitter-service part of it,” says Riggle. “But it’s not something that is covered by hospices.”

Her company is a small for-profit business called Adoration; she says the agency can’t provide more services than the Medicare benefit pays for.

I checked in again with John and Velez (Jean’s long-time private caregiver) this winter. The two were by Jean’s side — and had been there for several days straight — when she died in October. The hospice nurse showed up only afterward, to officially document the death.

This experience of family caregivers is typical, but often unexpected.

‘It’s a burden I lovingly did’

“It does take a toll” on families, says Katherine Ornstein, an associate professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, who studies what typically happens in the last years of patients’ lives. The increasing burden on loved ones — especially spouses — is reaching a breaking point for many people, her research shows. This particular type of stress has even been given a name: caregiver syndrome.

“Our long-term care system in this country is really using families — unpaid family members,” she says. “That’s our situation.”

A few high-profile advocates have even started questioning whether hospice is right for everybody. For some who have gone through home hospice with a loved one, the difficult experience has led them to choose otherwise for themselves.

Social worker Coneigh Sea has a portrait of her husband that sits in the entryway of her home in Murfreesboro, Tenn. He died of prostate cancer in their bedroom in 1993.


Coneigh Sea is a social worker from Murfreesboro, Tenn., who cared for her husband as he died on home hospice. Now, she wants to make sure her children don’t do the same for her.

Enough time has passed since then that the mental fog she experienced while managing his medication and bodily fluids — mostly by herself — has cleared, she says. But it was a burden.

“For me to say that — there’s that guilt,” she says, then adds, “but I know better. It was a burden that I lovingly did.”

She doesn’t regret the experience, but says it is not one she wishes for her own grown children. She recently sat them down, she says, to make sure they handle her death differently.

“I told my family, if there is such a thing, I will come back and I will haunt you,” she says with a laugh. “Don’t you do that.”

Sea’s family may have limited options. Sidestepping home hospice typically means paying for a pricey nursing home, or passing away with the cost and potential chaos of a hospital — which is precisely what hospice care was set up to avoid.

As researchers in the field look to the future, they are calling for more palliative care, not less — even as they also advocate for more support of the spouses, family members and friends who are tasked with caring for the patient.

“We really have to expand — in general — our approach to supporting caregivers,” Ornstein says, noting that some countries outside the U.S. pay for a wider range, and longer duration of home health services.

“I think what we really need to do is be broadening the support that individuals and families can have as they’re caring for individuals throughout the course of serious illness,” Ornstein says. “And I think that probably speaks to the expansion of palliative care in general.”

Complete Article HERE!

Cannabis in Palliative Care

Dying with dignity is a human right, and cannabis could help

By Mary Biles

End-of-life care is one of the less frequently discussed uses of medical cannabis. After all, most of us who turn to cannabis, want to continue living, right? And yet, thanks to the ability of cannabis to ameliorate the heavy symptom burden experienced by patients with minimal side effects, palliative care is perhaps the area of medicine that would most benefit from its clinical use.

Dying is a journey all of us will inevitably take, however how to ‘die well’ is something we tend not to consider. Dignity with dying is only possible, I believe, when there is a certain amount of consciousness and acceptance of the process. Something that a skinful of morphine doesn’t allow. But cannabis does, and I experienced this for the first time with a friend’s mother.

As Jose neared the end of her life after battling pancreatic cancer, morphine failed to control her pain, leaving her confused and unable to connect with loved ones. Thanks to an open-minded doctor who recommended cannabis oil, the last few weeks of her life became the gift her family longed for. The pain no longer troubled her, the anxiety lessened, sleep returned, as did her appetite. Not only that, Jose remained fully lucid until moments before she died.

This changed me forever and it’s why I’m sitting here today writing about cannabis.

Holistic medicine

Sadly, when my mother became terminally ill with advanced cancer, this option was not available in the UK. Sure, I had a few offers from my cannabis contacts. But for an 82-year-old Irish ex-nurse, trusting a funky tasting oil (that I couldn’t say for sure how much to take) over the pharmaceutical meds prescribed in precise dosages was never going to happen.

Instead, I found myself administering a list of medications that just kept growing and growing as the disease progressed. This included morphine for the pain (which incidentally my mum couldn’t tolerate), antiemetics for nausea, laxatives for the constipation caused by both the cancer and the pain medication, as well as Lorazepam for the middle-of-the-night agitation.

The frustration was overwhelming. I knew that instead of the sledgehammer approach to her symptom control, a far more holistic, person-centred alternative existed that could not only ease her pain, take the edge off her anxiety and agitation, stimulate her appetite and help with the nausea, but also allow her to be present for the time that remained.

What is Palliative Care?

According to the World Health Organization, palliative care is “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”

In other words, palliative care encompasses end-of-life care, but a patient receiving palliative care is not necessarily approaching death.

However, when a patient enters the end-of-life stage in a hospice setting, the emphasis on quality of life means rules often get bent in a bid to fulfil a dying patient’s wishes and beliefs. Dogs and family pets are welcome guests in a patient’s room, and a glass of wine is not unheard of, if that’s what the patient wants. So why not allow access to medical cannabis if that will help ease the suffering of a dying patient?

In some countries and states in the US, palliative and end-of-life care is considered a qualifying condition for the prescription of medical cannabis.

Using Cannabis in Palliative Care

Since 2007, the Israeli Ministry of Health has approved medical cannabis for palliative care in patients with cancer. This led to a prospective study analysing the safety and efficacy of cannabis in 2970 patients and the responses were overwhelmingly positive.

Ninety-six percent of patients who responded in the 6 month follow-up reported an improvement in their condition, 3.7% reported no change and 0.3% reported deterioration in their medical condition. Furthermore, while only 18.7% of patients described themselves as having good quality of life prior to cannabis treatment, 69.5% did six months later. Tellingly, just over a third of patients stopped using opioid pain medication.

While observational studies such as these suggest cannabis can improve symptoms commonly found in advanced cancer, as well as improving quality of life, in practice physicians often feel insufficiently informed to prescribe cannabis to their patients.

A 2018 survey found that of the 237 US oncologists interviewed, 80% conducted discussions with their patients about cannabis, while only 30% actually felt they had enough information.

 

However, an encouraging 67% viewed cannabis as a helpful additional way to manage pain, and 65% said that it was equally or more effective than the standard treatments for the rapid weight loss often found in advanced cancer. And yet, only 45% of them actually prescribed cannabis to their patients.

These discrepancies mean that even in countries where cannabis can legally be prescribed for palliative care, many physicians prefer to stick to the usual methods of symptom control.

A Physician’s View

Claude Cyr, MD, a Canadian family physician and author of “Cannabis in palliative care: current challenges and practical recommendations,” believes palliative care is uniquely suited to cannabis.

 

“If we’re going to integrate cannabis products in medicine,” he told Project CBD, “palliative care is the best port of entry because of the fact that doctors have more time, and patients also have the time to deal with possible issues of the medication.”

However, in order for cannabis to fulfil its potential in palliative care, Dr. Cyr believes a shift in how physicians view symptom control is needed.

“What seems to be coming through with the research for symptom control,” says Cyr, “is that cannabis is mildly effective for pain, mildly effective for nausea, mildly effective for insomnia and anxiety. It doesn’t treat any one of these conditions dramatically better than the other medications that we have. So, many physicians are like ‘why would we take a medication that is mildly effective when I can take a much more incisive approach with specific symptoms.’ Instead of saying ‘Do you have a bit of pain, a bit of anxiety, a bit of insomnia, a lack of appetite and a bit of nausea? So why don’t we start with something that’s mildly effective for all that and then we’ll be able to work on more specific symptoms in the long run’.”

Cyr is also critical of fellow physicians’ tendencies to rely on clinical evidence while dismissing the validity of their patients’ positive experiences.

“Palliative care is a specific situation where we can actually put into question the core philosophy of medicine which is the evidence based paradigm. I think physicians need to stop obsessing over the evidence when their patients are dying and clearly telling them, ‘I’m really enjoying this, I’m getting huge benefits from this, I’m sleeping better, I’m eating better.’ But the physicians are nodding their heads and saying, ‘I hear you, but I can’t accept this because I’m still lacking evidence.’

“But I think there is enough data out there to convince physicians that it’s safe for palliative care patients, and it’s predictable.” 

Psychoactivity in palliative care

Cyr urges doctors to find peace with the idea that cannabis is psychoactive, which he believes could actually help patients process the existential anxiety often experienced at the end of their lives.

“When you look at the studies of psychedelics in depression and existential anxiety in cancer patients, some of these results have been dramatic,” says Cyr. “Although cannabis isn’t a true psychedelic, there are some similar experiences that patients tell us about.

At smaller doses patients experience a psycholytic effect, a lowering of the defenses allowing people to explore other aspects of their psyche, and that’s when they start making connections between different aspects of their reality.”

THC’s ability to reduce activation of the default mode network, the area of the brain involved in cognitive processing and where our ego or sense of self is thought to reside, could also potentially bring a sense of peace to dying patients.

Cyr explains: “Existential anxiety is rooted in the loss of the self, but when you can dissolve the ego temporarily and you realize it’s not all about me, that can be liberating.”

For the last fifty years, activists have been campaigning for the right to use cannabis to treat their health conditions in order to be well. This must also be extended to using cannabis to maintain quality of life in life-threatening illnesses, and when this no longer becomes possible, to die well and with dignity.

In memory of Jose and Agnes.

Complete Article HERE!

My 92-Year-Old Father Didn’t Need More Medical Care

Ordering up more tests and surgeries for dying patients is easy. Getting patients the end-of-life care they deserve takes much more effort.

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My 92-year-old father fell one Saturday night a few months ago. My mother could not pick him up. Her brother was not answering his cellphone, so she called 911. An ambulance crew brought him to the hospital.

The emergency-room physician ordered a CT scan. A spot on the scan worried him, so he ordered an MRI, which confirmed that a tumor the size and shape of a pear was occupying the frontal lobes of his brain. Meanwhile, a chest X-ray gave the physician some reason to suspect pneumonia—the image of the lungs looked cloudy, though it lacked the focal infiltrates that usually signify that condition—so he admitted my father to the hospital.

I took the first flight from Washington, D.C., and arrived in his room at a suburban-Chicago hospital at about 9 a.m. He was sitting in a chair, and all sorts of white wires were emerging from under his flimsy hospital gown. His index finger, because of the oxygen monitor attached to it, glowed like E.T.’s. Still, my father was acting like himself. When I entered the room, he mischievously needled me: “How are you doing, schmucko?”

The monitor above his bed showed a regular heart rate and oxygen saturation of 100 percent. The IV pole towering over him showed two empty bags of antibiotics.

I squeezed my dad’s hand, and we talked for about 20 minutes. Then I stepped out of the room to find the doctor to ask some questions. Standing at the nurses’ station, I was introduced to a neurosurgeon and a neuro-oncologist, who were ready to talk to me about my father’s condition and treatment options.

My father had a large brain tumor that could not be cured and would end his life. No neurosurgeon or oncologist could change the inevitable. Especially in light of his age, any intervention that involved drilling into his skull and biopsying or removing part of such a big tumor would only worsen his quality of life. We didn’t want to interfere with him talking with his children and grandchildren and playing with his great-grandchildren during the time he had left.

But no one had taken the time to ask him about his wishes regarding medical treatment, even though he was competent to make decisions and was himself a physician. No one asked my mother and brother, who were with him in the emergency room and at the hospital, if he had an advance-care directive or wanted to have a do-not-resuscitate order. My father, a pediatrician, was one of those doctors who hated getting any medical care. Fifteen years before, he had walked around for three weeks insisting that the pain at the bottom of his rib cage was just acid indigestion. Eventually, he consented to go to his internist and was diagnosed with a heart attack, which required a bypass operation. Everything about the way he’d lived meant he certainly did not want any brain surgery with no chance of a cure. He wanted to die at home having shared his final days with his family.

Since the mid-1980s, I have worked to make this type of end-of-life care possible. I am a physician too. Once my father was admitted to a hospital, it took all my expertise and experience to arrange the kind of care he needed—and prevent the medical system from taking over and prescribing unnecessary interventions.

It was easy for the hospital physician to call a neurosurgeon and neuro-oncologist and for them to assess my father early on a Sunday morning before I arrived. But when I asked if we could get my father a palliative-care consult on Sunday, the answer was a definitive no. All we got was the number of the hospital’s palliative-care service; we had to call the next day, during normal business hours, to arrange a future consultation.

It was easy for the physician to prescribe my father two antibiotics for his supposed pneumonia even though he had none of the symptoms—a fever, ugly-looking phlegm, shortness of breath. Indeed, he was comfortably breathing room air with 100 percent oxygen saturation, which people with pneumonia typically can’t do. But it was impossible for the physician to order an in-home aide to help my father shower, get to and from the bathroom, and navigate the stairs to the living room and kitchen.

It was easy for my mother to call 911 and have him transported to the hospital. But if he fell again, there would be no 911-like number for my mother to call for urgent assistance short of EMTs and ambulances.

It would be easy for the emergency-room physician to admit my father again, and even put him in the intensive-care unit. But no one suggested that he and my mother get mental health care or see a grief counselor to cope with his new terminal diagnosis.

The hospital was no place for my father to spend his last days. To thwart the medical system’s momentum to lard on ever more costly, unnecessary, and unwanted interventions—and to convince the medical staff we were serious about no—I took my father’s oxygen monitor off his finger, disconnected his cardiac monitor, insisted that the nurse remove his IV, and asked the physician to discharge him as soon as possible.

Beyond a suggestion that we find a home-care agency to call, the hospital offered no assistance in getting him help at home. Ironically, the aide transporting him out of the hospital volunteered that she knew someone who was available to provide home care. Through my father’s former nurse and someone she knew, we ended up getting a talented and kind set of cousins—immigrants from the Philippines—who were able to provide care.

Despite the medical system, my father did avoid further trips to the hospital, an ICU admission, and more antibiotics and machines. He spent the rest of his time at home and was able to say goodbye to everyone. And being at home was cheaper. We still don’t have all the bills, but the tab just for about 12 hours in the hospital came to $19,276.83. In contrast, the more than 200 hours of home care he got over the next 10 days cost only $6,093.

Many Americans are puzzled about why end-of-life care costs are so high, and why physicians cannot seem to reduce them. My father’s story is the answer.

It has less to do with physicians’ and hospitals’ financial incentives to admit more patients and perform more medical interventions, and more to do with the effort required to order and provide human care. For providers, ordering tests and consultations and prescribing antibiotics is easier than listening to and diagnosing the particular needs of the person in front of them. It is easier for the medical system to marshal all sorts of costly interventions—MRI scans, hospital admissions, neurosurgeons, cancer chemotherapy, and the rest—but harder, if not impossible, to accept the inevitable and provide symptom management, grief counseling, and home care to patients and their family. Until the system takes account of the whole patient and provides the whole package of humane care as the default—so that it’s routine and made available 24/7 with one physician’s order, just as chemotherapy or an MRI would be—Americans will not be able to finally change end-of-life care and reduce those costs.

A terminal diagnosis is inherently traumatic for patients and their families. My father’s experience at home before his death needs to become the standard of care. And not just for patients with pushy sons who have medical training and know how to speak with physicians, disconnect cardiac monitors, and firmly refuse the interventions that our health-care system is so predisposed to offer.

Complete Article HERE!

Dying in the Neurosurgical I.C.U.

In cases of brain death or neurologically devastating injury, poor communication can make painful situations even harder.

By Joseph Stern, M.D.

The bullet hole in the teenager’s forehead was so small, it belied the damage already done to his brain. The injury was fatal. We knew this the moment he arrived in the emergency room. Days later, his body was being kept alive in the intensive care unit despite an exam showing that he was brain-dead and no blood was flowing to his brain. Eventually, all his organs failed and his heart stopped beating.

But the nurses continued to care for the boy and his family, knowing he was already dead but trying to help the family members with the agonizing process of accepting his death.

This scenario occurs all too frequently in the neurosurgical I.C.U. Doctors often delay the withdrawal of life-sustaining supports such as ventilators and IV drips, and nurses continue these treatments — adhering to protocols, yet feeling internal conflict. A lack of consensus or communication among doctors, nurses and families often makes these situations more difficult for all involved.

Brain death is stark and final. When the patient’s brain function has ceased, bodily death inevitably follows, no matter what we do. Continued interventions, painful as they may be, are necessarily of limited duration. We can keep a brain-dead patient’s body alive for a few days at the most before his heart stops for good.

Trickier and much more common is the middle ground of a neurologically devastating injury without brain death. Here, decisions can be more difficult, and electing to continue or to withdraw treatment much more problematic. Inconsistent communication and support between medical staff members and families plays a role. A new field, neuropalliative care, seeks to focus “on outcomes important to patients and families” and “to guide and support patients and families through complex choices involving immense uncertainty and intensely important outcomes of mind and body.”

Not long ago, my surgical partner performed late-night emergency surgery on a young woman who had also been shot in the head. This time, the bullet’s violent impact exploded her skull. It traversed both hemispheres of her brain, including her basal ganglia and thalamus (deep brain regions affecting consciousness). Injury to these areas has a dismal prognosis, as do penetrating injuries to both sides of the brain. But, unlike the first patient with a single bullet hole and no exit wound, the initial explosion decompressed her brain, accommodating swelling rather than producing dangerously high pressures as occurred in the first patient, which led to brain herniation and his death.

This young woman lay in her I.C.U. bed, breathing with the aid of a mechanical ventilator, turned by nurses every two hours, fed through a thin tube passed through her nose into her stomach: never conscious, never moving spontaneously, seemingly unaware of her surroundings. She was likely to remain this way for the rest of her life.

The treating physicians and nurses agreed on the patient’s prognosis, and on a consistent message everyone could support. We met with the family at the young woman’s bedside and later telephoned out-of-state family members. The I.C.U. director and I spoke about difficult medical decisions we’d had to make regarding our own family members, and we asked them what she might want, since they were representing her interests and acting on her behalf. I explained her injury and the likelihood that she would never recover: Together, family members and neuro-I.C.U. caregivers agreed to transition the woman to comfort care and let her die.

Two years ago, I too was on the family side of this situation after my brother-in-law Pat collapsed with a brain hemorrhage from a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. As the only physician in the family and Pat’s legally designated health care power of attorney, I made his medical decisions and communicated with the rest of his family, including his two sons, who were then 16 and 18 years old. This was all the more difficult because a year previously, his wife, my sister Victoria, had died of leukemia, leaving Pat as their children’s sole caregiver.

Pat was taken by ambulance to U.C.L.A. Medical Center in Westwood. Before flying to Los Angeles, I agreed to surgical clipping of his ruptured aneurysm. Technically, surgery went well, but Pat never regained consciousness. While never brain-dead, he remained deeply comatose. His neurosurgeon, Gregory Lekovic, was supportive: he and I discussed a timeline at our first meeting. He recommended giving Pat at least a week to improve. If he did not, Dr. Lekovic counseled us not to allow a tracheostomy and G-tube placement (permanent surgical routes for breathing and nutrition), and opt instead to withdraw treatment. This would be the clear stopping point. Dr. Lekovic and I worried it would be difficult to back off after those procedures had occurred.

Throughout the following week, Pat did not improve at all neurologically. Everyone hoped he was rallying. I felt like a wet blanket, continually challenging the other doctors’ enthusiasm. Understanding his condition and having legal authority to make decisions allowed me to keep a clear view of care objectives, but it didn’t make the situation easier on a personal level. Pat’s children had only begun coming to terms with losing their mother and were now confronting the possible loss of their father. But delaying this loss wouldn’t justify his continued existence without quality of life. He would have hated being comatose or severely impaired in a nursing home, unable to relate to his family or to care for his own basic needs such as eating or toileting, and had feared burdening his family.

The likelihood was that Pat would never regain consciousness. Yet on the morning we had planned to withdraw treatment, one of the neuro-I.C.U. specialists presented a scenario in which Pat might wake up, become able to walk with assistance and participate with his family. When pressed, the doctor admitted he was giving us the best possible outcome, rather than the most likely outcome.

Then Dr. Lekovic, speaking plainly, told us that for himself or his family member, he would make the decision to end treatment. He seemed genuinely sad. Doctors often think it is most important to be precise and not make mistakes; to predict the future with medical certainty. In my experience, connection and empathy are far more important than certainty. Patients and families want to know that you care about them and that you appreciate their pain in difficult circumstances.

My nephews appreciated the truth when I explained their father’s prognosis. While they were devastated at the prospect of losing him, honesty and inclusion in decision-making were important in helping them move forward with their lives.

Even with my training, I wondered if I was making the right decisions. Each affected family faces similar burdens. We all need better help wrestling with decisions in neurologically devastated patients, both through improved communication and the development of neuropalliative services.

Those of us in the medical profession cannot allow ourselves to focus on the short-term or allow care to be driven by procedures, losing sight of outcome and quality of life. We need to approach our patients and their families with open hearts, acknowledging their suffering and the uncertainty we all experience.

Complete Article HERE!

The woman whose job it is to prepare people to die

She arranges everything, from finding long lost families to organising organ donation

by Abbie Wightwick

 

She’s only 26 but Claire Wretham is employed by a Welsh hospice to help people face death.

She is the youngest person in any of Marie Curie’s nine hospices nationwide in the role.

Watching her own grandmother have  “a beautiful death” inspired her to help others do the same.

“We all deserve a good death that celebrates life. I am helping people feel at peace,” she said.

As full time spiritual care co-ordinator at Marie Curie Hospice, Cardiff and the Vale , Claire answers any questions patients and their families have about life’s greatest mystery.

Marie Curie spiritual care coordinator Claire Wretham with her grandparents Maura and John Brosnan. Maura’s death in 2016 inspired Claire to take up her post.

“My grandmother died at home, a really beautiful death with all her family around her. We were able to facilitate for her the perfect death.

Penarth with everything from tracing lost loved ones to special religious or cultural requests, officiates at funerals and goes to local mosques,synagogues and church groups to talk about death and dying.

In an increasingly secular and diverse society her role at Marie Curie has replaced the traditional one of chaplain, although Claire still uses that term when first meeting patients.

“I introduce myself as chaplain because it really is a modern interpretation of that,” she explained.

“My age is mostly irrelevant. People often comment on the fact I am young but I don’t think it hinders my role.

“People my age group see the world differently and approach things in a different way.

“Part of my role is asking people “what makes you you, how would you describe yourself and how do you find peace?

“As younger people we often have lots of spaces and experiences to express ourselves, but some older people don’t feel the same freedom to express themselves, so I ask “who are you, what makes you you and what makes you comfortable and at peace?.”

A practising Christian, Claire was appointed to the job two years ago and is an “allied health professional”, not a medic, although she knows and can explain what may happen during dying and immediately after.

Her role as spiritual adviser was created in response to research that Marie Curie did in 2015 investigating how to improve access to palliative care for people with dementia, learning disabilities and people with different or no religious beliefs.

Sarah Lloyd-Davies, hospice manager at Marie Curie Hospice, Cardiff and the Vale, explained: Hospice care and chaplaincy services have long been rooted in the Christian tradition, as both developed at a time when Christianity was the majority religion in the UK.

“As the country has grown more diverse there has also been a trend in growing numbers of people identifying as nonreligious.

“The hiring of a spiritual care coordinator to replace the traditional chaplain role at the Marie Curie Hospice Cardiff and Vale reflects the feedback from our local community, which recognises that one person and one approach cannot meet everyone’s spiritual needs.

“In order to make sure our services are truly inclusive and person-centred, we need to focus on connecting with belief-based communities and exploring new ways of providing spiritual care so we can ensure people feel supported in the best way for them at the end of their life.

Whatever background people come from death and dying are still taboo subjects which Claire must help them face.

“A lot of my job is myth busting and explaining to people how it works at the hospice and what they can expect as they come to the end of their life,” the 26 year-old said.

“Questions I would normally ask are whether they have any spiritual or religious needs and whether they have a faith or anything that’s a source of comfort.

“If they are religious I will discuss that with them – for instance if they are Catholic and want the last rites I liaise with their priest, if they are Muslim and want their bed facing Mecca and halal meals my job is to arrange that and liaise with nursing staff about it.”

There is “no formula or prescription” for talking about death so Claire begins with a few questions.

“It’s about asking questions to get people to explore death or go away and think about it.

“The sort of questions I’ll ask are things like – have you got any unfinished business or anything you want to tie up? That can be relationships, writing a will, funeral planning, making amends with estranged family members , and how we can help with that, if we can.”

When patients tell her they are scared of dying she tries to remove some of the mystery around it to reassure.

“If someone is scared of dying a big part of it, from my point of view, is explaining what will happen when they die.

“There are lots of misconceptions about pain relief. They want to know what it will feel like. I explain that they will probably just fall asleep more.

“I explore with them what they think that will be like. There is nothing you can say really, ultimately it’s something people form their own ideas about.

“I may also ask people what they want their legacy to be. Some people think there is nothing after you are dead so I’d ask them how they want to be remembered.”

But she doesn’t push it if people don’t want to talk.

“We live in a culture where it’s normal to talk about things but the idea of a chaplaincy and spiritual support is so alien to some people that they say no, they don’t want to talk to me.”

As she doesn’t have all the answers Claire tries to keep things practical when explaining what happens after death in a hospice.

“I know what a dead body looks like, where you go after death and what the crematorium looks like.

“My main technique is to remove any confusion. I do ask people if they are frightened and how I can help them not feel afraid.

“Most of the time people are worried about “what’s happening next and what about the pain?”

“I think death is so difficult to talk about because we don’t see death often. The majority of deaths happen in hospital. People don’t know what death looks like.

“For us in a hospice a huge part of our role is pulling the curtain on that. Lots of people come in asking really big questions and having misconceptions.”

These include controversy and suspicion surrounding syringe drives to administer pain relief and the mistaken beliefs about how they are used.

“People are horrified by the syringe driver. It’s in a locked box and nurses replenish pain killers. It is controlled pain relief. Some people think it is a death sentence, but it’s not. Sometimes people have a syringe driver for pain relief and then have it removed.”

“On the other hand some people say “can I have the drugs now?”. That’s not legal and not what hospices are about.”

“When we talk to people here about donation it’s usually only corneas because they can’t donate anything else. Some people say “you can take anything but not my eyes, but I have watched eyeball removal and it is really amazing because one cornea can be used to help eight people.”

It is Claire’s job to arrange any donations. She recalled one case when she arranged for a motorbike to collect the brain of a patient with motor neurone disease who had requested it be donated to medical science – something that had to be arranged within 72 hours.

“I spent all day organising brain removal and that afternoon someone came down from London on a motorbike and took it back for donation to medical science.”

Although her job does involve these practical matters it is also a matter of listening to people at what can be the hardest time of their lives.

“My job is varied Once a man came in and said his father had died here 28 years ago. He said he had never visited Wales and now lives in Canada but had flown into Cardiff to see where his father died.

“I showed him around the hospice and talked to him about his grief and about Penarth. He was very tearful, he had flown all the way from Canada to see where his dad died, but he was able to resolve his grief.”

Surrounded by grief and death on a daily basis Claire says it is not morbid but a privilege to help people.

“Death happens to everyone. It’s coming to all of us. We should look to normalise it.”

Complete Article HERE!

The case for hospice care

By BETH SLEPIAN

A recent analysis published by the New England Journal of Medicine revealed that for the first time since the early 20th century, more Americans are dying at home than in the hospital.

According to the report, in 2017, 30.7% of Americans died at home, while slightly fewer (29.8%) died in hospitals. Another notable statistic from the study is that between 2003 and 2017 the number of Americans who died in hospice-specific facilities grew by 41%, from 0.2% of deaths in 2003 to 8.3% in 2017. According to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO), 47.5% of New Hampshire residents on Medicare who died in 2017 were receiving hospice care benefits.

This data does not come as a surprise to those of us who work in hospice care and have the honor of helping families navigate the end-of-life experience.

Up until the mid-1900s, it was routine for people to die in their homes, cared for and surrounded by loved ones, but by the 1950s, more Americans died in hospitals. The concept of “death with dignity” was introduced in the United States in the early 1960s, sparking the movement toward hospice care.

The hospice movement gathered steam in the late 1970s with the formation of the National Hospice Organization, and by the mid-1980s, the federal government formalized the hospice benefit for people on Medicare.

Concord Regional VNA has been caring for people in their homes for 120 years, providing nursing, therapy, personal care, homemaking and other services to people of all ages. For more than 30 of those years, we have provided specialized end-of-life care, guidance, and support to patients and families. In 1994 we expanded our hospice service by opening the first Hospice House in New Hampshire on Pleasant Street in Concord. We have served thousands of hospice patients and their families over the years, including nearly 1,000 patients in 2019.

While it is true that hospice care comes into play toward the end of a person’s life, there are many common misconceptions, such as:

■ Hospice care is only for the last few days or weeks of a person’s life;

■ It is only for people with cancer, people in severe pain or those who have a “do not resuscitate” order;

■ People on hospice do not receive treatment, they’re just kept comfortable with medication;

■ Hospice is a “place” where a person goes to die;

■ Hospice hastens death;

■ People on hospice must give up seeing their primary care providers;

■ Hospice care is focused on the patient and ends when the patient dies.

Hospice care is much more than meeting patients’ medical needs. Hospice care empowers patients to have a voice in their end-of-life experience, and to help them through it with as much comfort, grace and dignity as possible. It is about compassion – for them and their loved ones.

Some people choose to begin receiving hospice care in the final weeks or days of a terminal illness, but it is not unusual for patients to begin hospice care many months before they eventually pass.

People who receive hospice care through Concord Regional VNA benefit from individualized care coordinated with their care team, which may include their primary care provider and other clinicians. They may receive nursing care, physical and/or occupational therapy, pain management, spiritual care, social work , including emotional support and companionship – all in the place they call home, which could be a private residence, an independent living or assisted-living community, or a skilled nursing facility. Those who need more intensive care may opt to receive care at Hospice House.

Equally as important in this journey are the caregivers, who are most often the patients’ loved ones. Hospice care is about them, too. In addition to day-to-day assistance with patient care, loved ones may receive emotional and spiritual guidance and support from our counselors and spiritual care providers; help with end-of-life planning; much-needed respite care; and myriad other services. And it is important to note that hospice care does not end when a patient dies – our bereavement counselors and support groups help loved ones as they learn to cope with their loss for as long as they need us.

Hospice care is also about volunteers. The hospice movement was started by volunteers and they remain a crucial component to this day. In fact, Medicare requires that volunteers provide at least 5% of total patient care hours, which can take the form of direct support, spending time with patients and families, or performing tasks that support hospice care services. Concord Regional VNA is incredibly fortunate to have nearly 100 volunteers from the communities we serve who give their time and energy to our hospice patients and their loved ones.

So what does this mean and why does it matter? The recently released data suggests that more people have come to understand that receiving care in the comfort of home – in familiar surroundings, in proximity to loved ones and friends – is a preferable and realistic option. From a clinical standpoint, studies show that patients who receive hospice care live longer than those with similar diagnoses who do not receive hospice care. Receiving care at home also has a significant positive impact on overall health care costs.

Death is a fact of life. Patients often tell us that choosing hospice allows them to feel in control, and managing their symptoms helps them feel more at peace. Choosing hospice is not giving up, rather, it is choosing to live fully until you die.

It is not meant to be scary; it is meant to help people live each moment to the fullest and to pass with dignity and respect surrounded by love.

We at Concord Regional VNA are privileged to help patients and their loved ones navigate this journey, and proud to have been providing hospice service to the people of Concord and the 43 other New Hampshire communities we serve for more than 30 years.

Complete Article HERE!

Machine Learning Could Improve End-of-Life Communication

Using machine learning, researchers were able to better understand what end-of-life conversations look like, which could help providers improve their communication.

By Jessica Kent

Machine learning tools could analyze conversations between providers and patients about palliative care, leading to improved communication around serious illness and end-of-life treatment, according to a study conducted at the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Conversation Lab.

Discussions about treatment options and prognoses amid serious, life-threatening illnesses are a delicate balance for nurses and doctors. Providers are communicating with people who don’t know what the future holds, and these conversations are very difficult to navigate.

Researchers at UVM wanted to understand the types of conversations patients and providers have around serious illness. The team set out to identify common features of these conversations and determine if they have common storylines.
“We want to understand this complex thing called a conversation,” said Robert Gramling, director of the lab in UVM’s Larner College of Medicine who led the study. “Our major goal is to scale up the measurement of conversations so we can re-engineer the healthcare system to communicate better.”

Researchers used machine learning techniques to analyze 354 transcripts of palliative care conversations collected by the Palliative Care Communication Research Initiative, involving 231 patients in New York and California.

They broke each conversation into ten parts with an equal number of words in each, and examined how the frequency and distribution of words referring to time, illness terminology, sentiment, and words indicating possibility and desirability changed between each decile. Conversations tended to progress from talking about the past to talking about the future, and from happier to sadder sentiments.

“We picked up some strong signals,” said Gramling. “There was quite a range, they went from pretty sad to pretty happy.”

Discussions also tended to shift from talking about symptoms at the beginning, to treatment options in the middle and prognosis at the end. Additionally, the use of modal verbs like “can,” “will,” and “might,” that refer to probability and desirability also increased as conversations progressed.

The findings reveal the importance of stories in healthcare for patients, researchers noted.

“At the end there was more evaluation than description,” said Gramling. “What we found supports the importance of narrative in medicine.”

The team is now focused on using the machine learning algorithm to identify the different types of conversations that can occur in healthcare. This could help providers understand what might make a “good” conversation around palliative care, and how different conversations require different responses. Providers could then match patients to interventions they need the most.

“One type of conversation may lead to an ongoing need for information, while another may have an ongoing need for functional support,” said Gramling. “So one of the ways those types can help us is to identify what are the resources we are going to need for individual patients and families so that we’re not just applying the same stuff to everybody.”

A deeper understanding of these conversations will also help reveal what aspects and behaviors associated with these conversations are most valuable for patients and their families. Educators could then effectively train providers to have the skills needed in palliative care.

Researchers believe that the most useful application of the machine learning tool could be at the systemic level, which could monitor how patients respond to providers in aggregate.  

“I think this is going to be a potentially important research tool for us to begin fostering an understanding of a taxonomy of conversations that we have so that we can begin to learn how to improve upon each one of those types,” said Gramling.

“We already measure other processes of clinical care, we just don’t do it routinely for actual communication.”

Researchers have recently applied artificial intelligence tools to the realm of palliative care. A study published in September 2019 demonstrated that a predictive analytics tool can help increase the number of palliative care consultations for seriously ill individuals, leading to improved quality of life for patients and their families.

“There’s widespread recognition of the need to improve the quality of palliative care for seriously ill patients, and palliative care consultation has been associated with improved outcomes for these patients,” said the study’s lead author, Katherine Courtright, MD, an assistant professor of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care, and Hospice and Palliative Medicine.

Complete Article HERE!