More healthcare dollars are spent on end-of-life measures than perhaps any other single expense. About 25% of Medicare’s 2.8 trillion dollar budget is spent on care for people in the final year of life. That works out to be about $2500/person/year that we spend on government funded end-of-life care. Medicare spending overall is closer to $10k/person/year in this country… and given that the average household pays $6K in taxes/year… you can see that we’re in a real pickle when it comes to healthcare spending (and that’s just for Medicare).
In a recent blog post, PandaBearMD suggests that it’s time to “put granny down.” This gallows humor speaks to what the medical community has been been discussing in more academic terms. Here are some interesting sound bites (click on links for full references):
Terminally ill patients should be treated outside of acute care facilities. …Acute care hospitals are, by definition, set up for handling acute conditions – trauma, childbirth, orthopedics, heart attacks, etc. Terminal illnesses are not acute conditions, and therefore should be treated in a facility or setting that is chronic-care oriented.
The technological advances that medicine has witnessed in the last few decades are no more apparent than in the ICU. Yet when used inappropriately, this technology may not save lives nor improve the quality of a life, but rather transform death into a prolonged, miserable, and undignified process.
Hospice care can reduce the cost of end-of-life care by 30% or more (though this is debated).
“We don’t operate in a closed health care system, where there is a fixed number of dollars for health care, and thus the need to choose how to allocate those dollars,” said Dr. Weissman. “Our health care system is open-ended, which is why the cost of health care goes up every year. So we’re not making a tradeoff of spending more on the elderly and thus not using those resources on children’s care.
While it is fairly obvious that we deliver a lot of unnecessary, costly, and heroic medical care at the end of life, determining how to ration this care is fraught with moral and ethical dilemmas.
What sort of population-based rules should we institute to govern access to acute care services at the highest level? Would limiting care to people based on age or comorbidities sit well with Americans? Imagine that you’re 65 – just entering retirement and expecting to enjoy another 20 years of life – and you’re disqualified from top tier medical treatments because of your age. Who has the right to judge your worthiness of top medical technology?
I know of an elderly woman who accidentally took too many diuretics over the period of two weeks. She became delirious and was admitted to a hospital where the doctors assumed she had end stage Alzheimer’s disease and sent her home with hospice care. Another doctor later discovered the error, rehydrated her and she returned to her usual state of health. It was a close call for that “granny.”
My parents are in their late 70’s and in excellent health, enjoying book writing and traveling. I asked them to read PandaBear’s analysis of end-of-life care in the United States – and how billions of dollars are spent on heroic measures for the frail elderly.
My mother said tersely, “I hope I die in Europe.”
My father replied, “Whether you’re old or young, it’s nice to be alive.”
But I can’t help but think of that patient who was sent home with hospice care for delirium caused by severe dehydration. Will we turn our backs on the elderly and not carefully consider their differential diagnoses simply because of their age? As long time tax payers, are they not the most deserving of access to top technologies if so desired?
This is one tough dilemma – and the best I can advise is that we each create living wills, and save our own money for that rainy day when we need critical care, but are ineligible based on some future population-based rule to save money on futile care. In that case, the wealthy would always maintain access to the best care available.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.