Tuesday, August 03, 2010

August 3, 2010 - Clinging to the Tail of Possibility

On vacation in the Adirondacks, I read a remarkable article from the August 2 New Yorker magazine. I was tipped to the article by my brother, Jim – though I later learned from Claire that members of her hospice team have been passing it amongst themselves, causing lively discussion in their weekly staff meeting.

I think “Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life,” by Atul Gawande, may set off at least as much debate as his June 1, 2009 article, “The Cost Conundrum: What a Texas town can teach us about health care.” (which I discussed in a July 20, 2009 blog entry, “Where Not to Get Sick.”)

Gawande is a general surgeon who practices at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and who teaches at Harvard Medical School. He’s operated on a lot of cancer patients. Some benefitted mightily from his expertise, and others’ last days would likely have been more tolerable without the invasive procedures. Yet, hindsight is always 20/02, and ahead of time it’s always a tough call.

It’s his physician’s perspective that leads Dr. Gawande to question the lack of agreed-upon procedures for end-of-life decision-making in America. For a country with some of the most advanced medical care in the world, our practices in this area are remarkably haphazard.

Gawande points out that the financial costs of successful cancer treatment can typically be graphed as a bell curve: there’s a steep climb from the time of diagnosis to a sort of plateau, as very expensive scans and treatments are deployed. Then, there’s a drop-off in costs as the patient recovers. In the case of patients whose treatment is unsuccessful, the frequent result is half a bell curve. We throw some very big money at solving problems that are – statistically speaking – unlikely to be solved, sending the line of the graph soaring upwards. Because it’s a human life at stake, doctors typically follow the lead of patients and their families, ordering such last-ditch treatments if that’s what they want. In many such cases, the patient dies anyway, often after many days, or even weeks, of intensive care. If the ICU stay is long, those days can end up costing as much as – sometimes even more than – the cancer treatment itself.

These are agonizingly difficult decisions, some of the toughest in medicine. When to pursue extraordinary, experimental treatment? When to throw in the towel and admit that maintaining a reasonable quality of life for the patient whose health is in a tailspin is more important than the increasingly quixotic search for a cure?

Gawande remarks that nearly all categories of dying patients and their families – with one exception – are ill-prepared to wrestle with such complex, emotionally fraught decisions. When, as too often happens, everyone’s energies are single-mindedly fixed on the search for a cure, doctors fail to raise the what-if question of death at all. It seems to them premature. Yet, when that likelihood suddenly looms large, and quick decisions have to be made about such interventions as feeding tubes and ventilators, patients and families scramble to wrap their minds around the new state of affairs. Unable to achieve unanimity, a great many families fall back to the default position, which is to press on relentlessly in search of a cure – even though the doctors may know, full well, that chances of extending such patients’ lives by more than a few weeks are slim.

Granted – as Claire reminds me, based on her hospice ministry experience – there are some cultural and ethnic traditions that inform this process. Orthodox Jews, for example, typically make decisions within a moral framework that nearly always opts for treatment, no matter what the chances of success. African-Americans and Hispanics, bearing cultural memories of parents and grandparents to whom the system too often denied advanced care, are more likely than others to press for it, even against medical advice.

Referring to science writer Stephen Jay Gould’s oft-quoted 1985 essay, “The Median Isn’t the Message” – in which Gould tells the story of how, upon learning he had mesothelioma, he decided to take his place among the tiny percentage of patients who survive, and did – Gawande speaks of the “tail” of the statistical curve. That’s the narrow portion that stretches a good distance into the future, and includes the fortunate few patients who manage to beat the odds and survive a deadly cancer. It’s good to remember, when faced with such stories, that the statistical median is just that – a median. Always, there are some who do better than clinical expectations, others worse. An awful lot of people, though, are trying to ride the tail of statistical probability – far more than will end up actually being on it. Gawande writes:

“I think of Gould and his essay every time I have a patient with a terminal illness. There is almost always a long tail of possibility, however thin. What’s wrong with looking for it? Nothing, it seems to me, unless it means we have failed to prepare for the outcome that’s vastly more probable. The problem is that we’ve built our medical system and our culture around the long tail. We’ve created a multimillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets – and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.”

I mentioned above that Gawande identifies one category of patients and their families who are better prepared for end-of-life decision-making. He’s talking about those who have received hospice services. Alone among the specialties of modern medicine, the hospice movement is not afraid to face death head-on and talk about it with patients – well before the anxious moment in the little family waiting room just off the ICU, when a doctor (or, just as likely, a critical-care nurse) sits down on the vinyl-covered furniture with the family and informs them a decision needs to be made about discontinuing life-support.

Patients who have signed on for hospice care have already decided they’re not going to cling to the slim tail of possibility any longer. They’re going to strive for the best quality of life they can construct in the here-and-now, placing their hope somewhere other than joining the tiny percentage who defy medical expectations.

I can’t begin to recall the number of grieving family members I’ve spoken with who told me they wished their loved one had gone on hospice earlier. Claire confirms for me, from her experience working with bereaved family members, that this is a nearly-universal comment. Curiously, the vast majority of hospice patients live no longer than a few days. That’s not because hospice care is somehow bad for them – quite the opposite. It’s because, by the time most patients make this decision, they’re already so far gone that hospice functions as little more than a transfer-station between the hospital and the funeral home.

It’s not meant to be that way. The hospice ideal is for weeks or even months of active, but mostly palliative, treatment. The hope is that the hospice experience will provide a gracious space for patients and their families to work through the full range of issues – medical, emotional, spiritual – they need to deal with at the end of life. Surprising as it may seem, there are even some patients who go on hospice for a time, then go off it – their improvement has been such that the “six months or less to live” criterion of hospice admission no longer applies to them.

So, signing up for hospice care is not giving up, as some fear. Far from it.

The key to a higher quality of life for the dying, Gawande points out, is communication. One of the things hospice team members do exceptionally well is to encourage patients and their families to share their thoughts and feelings about dying, then to listen attentively and respectfully to what they say. Next, they help them think through what goals they have for the rest of their lives, and do whatever they can to help them attain them. “You don’t ask, ‘What do you want when you are dying?’” explains one expert. “You ask, ‘If time becomes short, what is most important to you?’” Gawande observes:

“People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and to say what they have seen, who will help people to prepare for what is to come – and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.”

The asking of such questions was meant to be a central part of the new health-care legislation recently passed by Congress, but politics blocked it. The Tea Party mob ignorantly slapped the label “death panels”on the funding for these vital conversations, then pressured Congressional leaders to excise it from the bill – which they did, so as not to lose the bigger battle. This is a terrible miscarriage of justice for the dying: the sacrifice of a proven care approach that offered real promise for enhanced quality of life.

When the only goal worth talking about is to beat the disease, Gawande concludes – no matter what that may mean in terms of unproven, experimental treatments – the statistical outcome in nearly every case is going to be disastrous. Which general would you rather have leading the troops into battle? George Armstrong Custer or Robert E. Lee?

“Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when you couldn’t, someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.”

This article is a good read, for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer – either their own or that of a loved one.


Anonymous said...

Carl, this was really a great article.

One of the most surprising facts in the article illustrates what seems to be a defect in our routine procedures for delivering and paying for hospice care. That defect is that -- to qualify for hospice care -- a patient has to be found to have less than six months to live and has to essentially agree to forego curative treatment options.

The article cited to an experiment by Aetna -- where the insurance company agreed to fund hospice not as an alternative to conventional treatment, but as an addition to conventinal treatment. The study found that patients who accepted hospice services alongside conventional therapies were much less likely to insist on invasive, low success probability treatments in their last days -- even though the patients retained the option to have these treatments. In other words, the ability to talk about end of life, quality of life issues in hospice affected patients' decision making. Why should patients have to make the decision to forego curative treatments as a condition for hospice -- before they have even had a chance to talk about what quality of life means and to understand what hospice is about?

This illustrates why the message of hospice should be something that is available even in earlier stages of treatment of serious, potentially terminal illnesses.

-- Jim

Bernie said...

Such an informative post. I have been cancer free for 8 years and I agree with everything that is being said here. Thank you for sharing......:-) Hugs

Daria said...

Thanks for bring my attention to the Letting Go article. It's very good.

dwilson1707 said...

This is a wonderful post. The things given are unanimous and needs to be appreciated by everyone.
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