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