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The Truth About Death Panels

The debate on Health Care Reform has devolved into partisan politics with each side denigrating the ideas of those they oppose instead of objectively searching for real and effective reform. In the September 4 issue of the Washington Post, an Alec MacGillis’ article “The Unwitting Birthplace of the ‘Death Panel’ Myth” shows how partisan politics brought about the destruction of a very good idea.  The piece details how those on the far Right disingenuously represented a provision in the House Health Care Bill to compensate physicians for time spent counseling their patients about end-of-life decisions.

I’d like to add a physicians’ perspective to both Mr. MacGillis’s story and an important aspect of life … death.  I applaud the efforts of those who tried to have this provision added to the HC Reform Bill and believe that it supported the doctor-patient relationship while trying to preserve the dignity of human life.  I ask: “Are we really supposed to believe that paying physicians to talk to their patients about death will lead to the creation of ‘Death Panels’?”

If you were to collapse right now and an ambulance sped you to a hospital Emergency Room, physicians and nurses would work to save your life, exhausting all options.  If you survived a prolonged effort at resuscitation this would likely be your ticket to a stay in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and with luck you would survive to resume your normal life as you had before.  It seems simple, right?

Wrong.

A whole host of what-ifs come to mind.  What if you have terminal cancer?  What if you are chronically ill?  What if you have already spent months in an intensive care unit and desired never to experience that again? What if you are left brain dead, to be characterized euphemistically as being in a persistent vegetative state?  Would you want your body to be kept alive, cast adrift without your mind to steer it?

I could go on and never run out of possible what-if scenarios.  That’s what you have your doctor for and if you haven’t talked to your primary care doctor about scenarios specific to you, then you have surrendered control of how you die to a combination of chance and the decisions of your family.  Furthermore, you are transferring all responsibility for these decisions from yourself to your loved ones and that includes the guilt that comes with making hard decisions.

Here are three tools that can express your wishes and absolve your loved ones from the burden of near-impossible decisions while also allowing you to protect the dignity of your own life as you alone can truly define:

1.    Living Will:  A legal document which goes into effect if you can no longer speak for yourself.  It will make your wishes regarding a variety of life prolonging medical treatments known to the physicians treating you.  One example would include whether or not to be kept alive in a persistent vegetative state by tube feedings.  It is also referred to as an advance directive.

2.    DNR Order: This stands for “Do Not Resuscitate.” In the event that your heart stops beating or you stop breathing, Emergency Personnel will be required to try to ‘bring you back.’ This includes electric shocks, chest compressions, and putting a tube into your windpipe to breath for you.  These invasive techniques can be life-saving but for some patients only delay death for a short period of time.  Since being shocked by electricity, having someone break your ribs doing chest compressions, or having a plastic tube in your throat are all painful, one’s doctor should make clear to their patient if these efforts would be futile and a DNR order fully explained.  It does not prevent you from being treated.

3.     Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care: Families (usually spouses and adult children) can make health care decisions for you if you are unable to.  But families tend to disagree and by assigning a power of attorney you have the chance to pick someone whose views more closely match your own or who you trust to follow your own wishes.

It takes time for a physician to adequately answer questions regarding end-of-life decisions and for most primary care doctors today, there is no time for it.  I used to be scared to mention a DNR or living will to my patients, aware that doing so could translate into an hour wait for every person scheduled to see me for the rest of the day.

If primary care doctors were reimbursed for time spent discussing end-of-life decisions more people would have living wills and DNRs, and this would pay both financial and ethical dividends to our society.  We would not waste so much money on people at the end of their life; and I am quite comfortable stating that to keep someone alive by artificial means when they wouldn’t have wanted it is wasteful. Ethical dividends would include protecting the dignity of human life, easing the emotional burden of loved ones in a time of crisis, and giving some control to individuals in deciding how they die — an unavoidable aspect of life that our society needs to honestly discuss and plan for.  We will all die but many of us first suffer needlessly and at great expense because we didn’t plan for it ahead of time.

Until next week, I remain yours in primary care,

Steve Simmons, MD


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