Skip to main content

Give patients end-of-life options

By Joan M. Teno, Special to CNN
March 15, 2013 -- Updated 1520 GMT (2320 HKT)
A massage therapist embraces a terminally ill patient at a Colorado hospice.
A massage therapist embraces a terminally ill patient at a Colorado hospice.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joan Teno asks: Why do doctors continue to test and treat patients who are clearly dying?
  • She says instead they should be helping very sick patients weigh quality of life against quantity
  • Teno: Hospice care doubles, but patients still in ICU until last 3 days of life. Do they want this?
  • Teno: Intervention lucrative for medical industry; this wars with patient-centered end-of-life care

Editor's note: Joan M. Teno is a physician and professor of health systems, policy and practice at the Warren Alpert School of Medicine of Brown University.

(CNN) -- The urban dictionary defines "cheech" as a verb used among physicians in training that refers to the act of ordering every conceivable radiological and laboratory test for a patient, often to diagnose a condition that once diagnosed is untreatable. Thirty years ago, the macabre joke during my three-month stint as an intern in the medical ICU was first cheech, then death.

I remember sitting at the bedside of a frail, older woman with dementia dying of septic shock. A litany of subspecialists had rounded earlier in the day, but no one said what was so obvious. She was dying. Instead, I sat at her bedside at 4:30 a.m. watching the sun rise over Narragansett Bay, increasing vasopressors to try to maintain her blood pressure.

Joan Teno
Joan Teno

Instead of being surrounded by her family and loved ones, the only person at her bedside was an exhausted intern who had never met the woman in bed No. 2 until the night before. This was simply wrong. Why were we rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic instead of ensuring that her death was peaceful and that she was surrounded by her family?

Intensive Care Units save some patients and play an important role in our health care system. But the overarching concern is, "Are we talking to frail, older patients and their families at the right time about when to stop (or avoid) ICU care and recurrent hospitalizations?" Decisions about hospitalizations and ICU admission must weigh the quality vs. the quantity of life.

Opinion: End-of-life planning eases suffering

These decisions must reflect a patient's informed wishes and goals for care, be based on what the patient and/or family understand about the medical condition -- their hopes and goals -- and educate them about the prognosis and treatment options to arrive at a care plan that honors realistic patient goals of care.

Our research published in the February 8 edition of JAMA finds that hospice is now part of mainstream medical care, with nearly half of older Medicare beneficiaries receiving hospice services. However, that's only half the story. More than a quarter (28.4%) of these people had the benefit of hospice for three days or less, and nearly half (40.3%) were in an ICU immediately before.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Indeed, contrasting end of life care in 2000 vs. 2009, in spite of a doubling of hospice use, we found more ICU care, more repeat hospitalizations and more patient transfers from hospital to another health care setting in the last three days of life. Does this pattern of care reflect the informed wishes of dying patients and their families? Our research does not provide the answer to this important question. But it is something we really need to know.

On the face of it, our research findings should not be surprising. You get what you pay for. All the financial incentives in fee-for-service Medicare are aligned to induce more hospitalizations, more ICU care and late hospice referrals. As we try to reform our health care system to provide care that is patient centered and care that improves the health of our population, we need to do a better job of paying for quality rather than simply paying for another day in the ICU, particularly if it does not change the inevitable.

Where dying kids' lives are celebrated
Dedicated to caring for the dying

Yet during the debate over health-care reform, a proposal to pay health-care providers for advance care planning was eliminated from the legislation based on the mistaken argument that promoting shared decision making with the goals of honoring patient wishes was equivalent to creating a "death panel."

The key is that decisions be based upon discussions that weigh the quantity vs. the quality of life reflect informed patient preferences. The evidence to date suggests we are falling short of that goal. We've previously shown that 11.6% of family members felt pressured by a physician to put a feeding tube in a dying patient with advanced dementia, and about 10% reported that no one discussed that decision with them.

A recent study of two ICUs that differed on the aggressiveness of care provided found contrasting decision-making styles: a futility based decision-making process where one talks to the patient only when death is certain in the aggressive ICU vs. a shared decision making model where physicians work with patients and families early in the ICU stay to arrive at a decision that is consistent with the patient's prognosis and goals of care in the ICU.

We must have publicly reported data on the degree in which our health care system delivers on the promise of patient centered care -- that health care providers are informing patients and their families of the expected prognosis and treatment options, helping them in making these difficult decisions, and that patients are provided the right care at the right time, in the right place, and consistent with their informed wishes. We must hold our health care system accountable to the goal that medical decisions should reflect patient informed goals and values.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joan M. Teno

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT