Despite Recent Well-intended but Misguided Advice to the Contrary
By Richard B. Stuart DSW, ABPP, Stephen J. Thielke MD, George Birchfield MD
Living wills are often the precursors to ADs. More advanced living wills, like the 6-Steps Living Will, help patients clarify their values and formulate personal statements that provide context for treatment decisions. Such instruments express patients’ preference for quantity versus quality of life, the scope of treatment the desire, i.e. aggressive, limited, or comfort care. and which treatments they want to undergo if their quality of life falls below a specified standard. They also include the appointment of an agent who fully understands the patients’ wishes and can serve as an advocate if necessary. These requests are then translated into medical orders that are scanned into electronic medical records. This is very different than being tied to a mast.
Despite the promise of ADs, reliance upon dichotomous “always/never” choices is one major conceptual problem limit in the most commonly used forms such as the POLST. The problem is that life often does not fit into black or white choices. Imagine the following situations.
55 year old Harold has a POLST that stipulates no CPR because he wants to avoid the rigors of a prolonged painful death. But while gardening, he is stung by eight wasps and suffers anaphylactic shock from which he will die unless resuscitated. Should he be allowed to die by following the order? Or should his wishes be over-ridden by an emergency responder who does not know him but believes that CPR could reverse his condition with good effect? The first option creates a moral problem, the second an ethical problem.
75 year-old Edith has a POLST that stipulates that she does wants to undergo CPR. She has just been released from the hospital following a trial of a fourth intravenous cancer drug being administered for an incurable cancer. Due to a medication error, her breathing stopped long enough to result in a high probability of irreversible brain damage. Her surrogate is aware of her desire to undergo CPR if she could return to her prior level of functioning, but not if she would be permanently immobilized and attached to a ventilator. Should caregivers condemn her to a fate she dreaded because of a medical error in accord with her POLST, or should they decide to ignore the order and allow her to die? This time the ethical and moral risks are reversed.
These cases are medically straightforward but ethical and moral issues arise because the orders are incomplete: they do not provide enough information to allow others to make appropriate choices for the patient who is silenced by a crisis.
In both life and medicine, many decisions are more wisely construed as “Always, Sometimes, or Never” choices. Although the POLST denies this realistic option, other tools allow it. The attached Conditional Medical Order (COM) was developed to account for the middle ground. Both Harold and Edith could have stipulated that they wanted CPR on the condition that it would overcome a reversible condition and restore them to their prior quality of life. They could also have stipulated that they wanted to be resuscitated regardless of the circumstances, or that they want to be allowed to die if their heart stops beating for any reason. The POLST leaves the decision in the hands of others who may not know patient’s references in these unforeseen circumstances: the COM allows patients to retain effective control over the care they receive and allows providers to make ethically and morally responsible decisions consistent with patients’ desires.
Nothing in healthcare is perfect. By selecting the “sometime” option, patients do delegate to providers the authority to use clinical judgment to decide whether resuscitation is in the patient’s best interest. But if guided by an awareness of patients’ values, and ideally in collaboration with surrogates, providers can make medically informed decisions about the likely impact of prolonging the patient’s life that accord with what the patient would have chosen.
The standard COM stipulates patients’ preferred scope of treatment, and includes orders for resuscitation, oxygenation, and artificial nutrition and hydration. It can be expanded to include other procedures such as surgery, dialysis, use of antibiotics, hospital transfer, and/or medical aid in dying if legal standards are met. Because it is a medical order, patients must have sufficient capacity to understand it, and it must be signed by a physician, nurse, or certified physician’s assistant. All patients can request a COM which is far the strongest option currently available to allow them to maintain control over one of the most important decisions they will ever make.
An editable COM can be downloaded without charge from: Stuart RB, Birchfield G, Little TE, Wetstone , S, McDermott J. Use of conditional medical orders to minimize moral, ethical, and legal risk in critical care. Journal of Healthcare Risk Management. 2021;(1):1-12. DOI:10.1002/jhrm.21487
See, too: www.6stepslivingwill.org
Stuart RB, Thielke SJ. Standardizing protection of patients’ rights: from POLST to MOELI (Medical Orders for End-of-Life Intervention. Journal of the American Medical Directors Association. 2017 Sep 1;18(9):741-745. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2017.04.022. Epub 2017 Jun 13.PMID:28623154