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The computer that decides if we live or die

  • Story Highlights
  • New software may predict how comatose patients would choose to be treated
  • Researchers claim information may assist relatives in making tough choices
  • Data bank will be used to build broad patient personal profiles
  • Some patients could choose the computer option instead of relying on family
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By Michelle Chan for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- A serious injury leaves a loved one in a coma. Relatives may face the hardest decision of their lives: to wait it out or turn off the life-support machine.

The program may help families decide what action to take if a loved one is critically ill

But now, that critical decision may be turned over to a sophisticated computer program. New software should soon be able to predict more accurately than loved ones how comatose patients would choose to be treated, if they were able to make the decision themselves.

Bioethicist David Wendler at the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Washington D.C., and his colleagues, used very elementary past research to build up patterns in patients' choices. "There was very little data available and the approach we used was incredibly simplistic," Wendler concedes. "But even with a little amount of data, we did very well."

The study compared how accurately their computer-based tool predicted a patient's preferred treatments compared with what loved ones said. Results showed both methods got it right around two-thirds to three-quarters of the time.

Wendler hopes to build up a broader data bank of personal profiles, which will include age, gender, religious and ethnic background, to advance the software. He is confident that will enable more accurate patient predictions. "We have very good reason to believe we can get significantly better results," Wendler says. "Maybe ten or fifteen percent more accurate than (next of kin)."

Patients have gained more control over their medical care in recent years but many still fail to sign a directive looking to the future. Few discuss treatment preferences they would elect if they lost the ability to make decisions. Without a self-directed advance medical plan for a patient, relatives are often asked to step in and act on a loved one's behalf.

"We've always gone with the idea that people who know the patient best are also best positioned to make the decision about treatment," Wendler says. "My concerns were that this process puts a burden on families. I wanted to develop an alternate approach."

Wendler is acutely aware of the problems a software program like this might pose for the community at large. "Some people say, 'of course this is good' and others think 'this is crazy'," Wendler says.

Irrespective of medical advances, some relatives may, on principle, always want to make end-of-life treatment decisions for incapacitated relatives. Others may prefer to see the computer-generated results to help them come to a decision. "We could give them supplementary information like: 'people like your father want this kind of treatment," Wendler says. That extra information might diminish doubts or offer support to an overwhelmed family member. "Results will be different depending on if they're twenty or ninety years-old," Wendler adds, "or if the treatment they face is a tasteless pill versus painful chemotherapy or invasive surgery."

The computer tool could also potentially replace the relative or next of kin. Patients could choose this option in advance of their degeneration instead of turning over the decision to a loved one. Some may see it as unburdening family or simply more accurate. There is also the segment of patients who do not have surrogates who can act on their behalf.

For Wendler and his team, the next step is a broad poll and to refine the computer model. As the head of the Unit on Vulnerable Populations in the Department of Bioethics in the NIH Clinical Center, Dave Wendler understands the need to keep his work transparent. "Developing a community-based process is essential," he says. "Poor, non-empowered groups are worried this process will be used to cut off treatments. But I am trying to identify what is the best way to make decisions for these patients."


Would you be prepared to put your life in the hands of a computer? Share your thoughts on the future of health and read what others have to say in the forum. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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