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When A Cancer Patient Might Be Better Off Choosing Hospice Care

Cancer is a dreadful disease. Just dreadful.  Make no mistake: I have tremendous respect for the awesome doctors who treat patients afflicted with it day after day. Still, paradoxically, I can’t help but notice that some of them have just as hard a time as do other doctors with caring for patients at the end of their lives. I believe a large part of their difficulty stems from the ridiculously dysfunctional either/or approach to palliative care and hospice we’re stuck with in this benighted country.

The problem is that in order to qualify for hospice, patients must not only have a certified life expectancy of less than six months, but they must also not be undergoing any active treatment for their malignancy. When you stop to think about it, though, this is actually quite discriminatory. We don’t require people on hospice with other diagnoses to discontinue their life sustaining medications. Patients with COPD are allowed to continue their bronchodilators; CHF patients don’t have to stop their ACE inhibitors and digoxin. But if a cancer patient wants to qualify for hospice, they have to forgo curative treatments like chemotherapy.

So what if the oncologists call it “palliative” chemo instead? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Dinosaur*

Experience In Medicine Has Its Downsides

You have probably read that experience makes for better doctors.

And of course this would be true–in the obvious ways, like with the hand-eye coordination required to do complex procedures, or more importantly, with the judgment of when to do them.

There’s no news here: everyone knows you want a doctor that’s been out of training awhile, but not so long that they have become weary, close-minded or physically diminished. Just the right amount of experience please.

But there’s also potential downsides and struggles that come with experience. Tonight I would like to dwell on three ways in which experience is causing me angst.

But first, as background…

It was the very esteemed physician-turned-authors, Dr. Groopman and his wife, Dr. Hartzland, who wrote this thought-provoking WSJ essay–on how hidden influences may sway our medical decisions–that got me thinking about how I have evolved as a doctor. They were writing from the perspective of the patient. But in the exam room, there are two parties: patient and doctor.

# 1) The sobering view that experience brings: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr John M*

End-Of-Life Care: When Medicine Prolongs Dying, Not Living

The recent Washington Post article entitled, “Who decides when medicine prolongs dying, not living?” perfectly captures my earlier blog on why we’re afraid of death. An excerpt from the Post piece:

[There's a] huge gap between Americans’ wishes about end-of-life care, as expressed in numerous public opinion polls, and what actually happens in too many instances–futile, expensive, often painful procedures performed on people too sick to leave the hospital alive–much less survive with a decent quality of life. Ninety percent of Americans say they want to die at home but only 20 percent do so. Half of Americans die in hospitals and another 25 percent in nursing homes, after a long period of suffering from chronic, incurable conditions that finally become untreatable. An astonishing one out of five die in intensive care units, often unconscious, isolated from loved ones and hooked up to machines that do nothing but prolong an inevitable death.

This happens partly because of the natural human tendency to procrastinate about addressing painful subjects with relatives and partly because doctors are often too pressed for time–and too uncomfortable with death and dying themselves–to respond when patients do bring up such issues. Just try to get a straight answer out of an oncologist, as an 89-year-old friend of mine did when her doctor advised another course of chemotherapy even though her cancer had metastasized to her brain. “Doctor,” she asked, “what chance is there that I’ll have a few months more of life that I can enjoy with my family?” He replied, “We can’t know these things.” She replied, “No, but we can use our common sense,” and declined further treatment. She died a month later in hospice, surrounded by her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What if she hadn’t been clear-minded enough to to speak for herself? What if her children, out of love, guilt or a combination of the two, had subjected her to treatment that she wouldn’t have wanted? That is what advance medical directives are intended to prevent. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at A Medical Writer's Musings on Medicine, Health Care, and the Writing Life*

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

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How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

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Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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