The advance directive is only a part of end of life decision making

On January 1, the White House announced a new policy that would have paid doctors for discussing end-of-life planning during their Medicare patients’ annual wellness visit.

Under this policy, physicians would be paid to encourage their patients to establish an advance directive, which would guide medical care if the patient became incapacitated from illness, and could no longer make medical decisions for him/herself.

But on January 5, the new policy was suddenly revoked. It was revoked, CMS lamely explained, because it had not been implemented using the correct process. But, as anyone would know who watched Congress make Obamacare the law of the land, this could not possibly have been the real reason.

The real reason, of course, has to do with the firestorm this new policy threatened to unleash, just as the House of Representatives was about to be taken over by the cretinous opposition party.

As regular readers will recall, the Obamacare bill originally included similar language on advance directives. Physicians were supposed to urge their patients, repeatedly if necessary, to establish advance directives, and their success in extracting advance directives from their patients was to be one of the “performance measures” by which doctors would be judged to be in good or bad standing with the Central Authority.

But then Sarah Palin said “death panels,” and a furor ensued. The provision on advance directives was quickly removed from the Obamacare legislation, as if Congress was admitting that Ms. Palin had been correct and they had been caught out.* Similarly, the effort last month to reinstate the provision failed to stick for fear of criticism at a bad time.

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*The original advance directive provision in Obamacare, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with “death panels,” since there are no panels of any sort involved in establishing advance directives. Rather, the entities that some might call death panels, and which DrRich has chosen to call GOD panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) – that is, panels of distinguished experts that will determine, by means of “guidelines,” which patients will get what, when and how – remain fully operative within Obamacare.
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DrRich has nothing against advance directives, and indeed, thinks they are a good idea – in concept, at least. Advance directives allow patients to establish beforehand, usually by a written document, what kinds of medical treatment they would or would not want should they fall victim to a serious, life-threatening illness that leaves them unable to express their wishes. Advance directives are supposed to work by providing guidance to their physicians, who, in their fiduciary capacity, are charged with acting in the patient’s best interest.

A well-constructed advance directive allows patients to choose to spare themselves from demeaning, undignified, painful or otherwise undesirable medical procedures and treatments, should they become incapacitated at a later date. “Well-constructed” implies that the advance directives are clearly and concisely written, that they honor the ethical and legal norms approved by society, and that they provide the physician with clear guidance.

But it is more difficult to write a “well-constructed” advance directive than might at first meet the eye. The major problems are two-fold: Advance directives often express imperfect knowledge, and they are often imperfectly expressed. These limitations mean that in appropriately exercising an advance directive, often the physician cannot follow them to the letter, but must interpret them according to the circumstances at hand.

A healthy and relatively robust individual cannot always know how he or she will feel years into the future, when illness strikes and it is time to exercise an advance directive. Every doctor has seen critically ill patients who, despite having advance directives to the contrary, unhesitatingly choose to be attached to a ventilator when the time comes, for instance, rather than face certain imminent death. So experienced doctors know that advance directives do not always indicate what patients will actually choose to do when the time to make a choice is upon them.

They also know that, while conscious patients have the opportunity to repeal their advance directives, unconscious or incapacitated patients do not.** So, in exercising an advance directive, the conscientious physician interprets that directive in light of many other factors, such as, her personal knowledge of the patient, the opinions of family as to what the patient would want done, and the chances of a long-term recovery if the therapy being considered is used. Then she will negotiate with responsible family members an approach that appears to meet the patient’s presumed desires.

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**Conscious patients can repeal their advance directives in theory. DrRich has witnessed actual doctors, however, arguing vociferously against using a medical therapy that a sick patient now desperately wants, because years ago the patient signed an advance directive expressing aversion to that therapy.
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Therefore the advance directive in many cases is an important part of the decision-making process, but it is not the only part. The appropriate use of an advance directive requires the doctor to behave as a true patient advocate, to selflessly place the desires expressed in the directive in context with everything else that might affect the patient’s true and current wishes, and then make a recommendation that, to the best of his or her ability, honors those wishes.

Unfortunately, doctors can no longer act primarily as their individual patient’s advocate. Indeed, physicians are officially enjoined (by the New Ethics formally adopted by their own professional organizations) to give the needs of society at least equal consideration. And so, as has demonstrably happened with other “guidelines” in medicine, it is inevitable that advance directives will be reduced to a legal edict, which must be followed to the letter if the physician wishes to remain clear of the Department of Justice.

The likelihood that there will be no room for interpretation means that constructing just the right kind of advance directive for yourself – one that will be precisely suitable to any contingency that may occur – has become extremely difficult. If you get the details just a little bit wrong for the circumstances that actually arise, the price you pay may be very heavy. It would be better to have no advance directive at all than to have one that is misleading or ambiguous. Advance directives must be written with extreme care, and only after long, thoughtful consideration.

That is not how the government would have it, however. For many years now, the Feds, under the Patient Self-Determination Act, requires hospitals to inform patients about advance directives at the time of every hospital admission, and to invite them to sign one. To say this is a less than ideal time to implement an advance directive would be something of an understatement. Asking a patient to sign an advance directive at the time of hospital admission, often by including it in the pile of routine and mind-numbing legalistic documents which patients must sign if they want to receive medical care, and often with no more guidance than that provided by the admissions clerk (who might explain, “This tells the doctors you don’t want to be kept alive on a machine like a vegetable,”) tells us something about whether the true motive for advance directives is to protect the patient’s autonomy – or to reduce costs.

Having the discussion in a doctor’s office these days, sadly, might not be much better. The Central Authority knows that squeezing what really ought to be at least a 30-minute discussion into a 10-15 minute office visit already packed with Pay for Performance requirements (while providing the added threat of punishment if the physician fails to extract an advance directive from the patient), will yield, at best, a signature on a boiler-plate document.

But despite the slap-dash method by which such a document may be implemented, it is a document whose language – when the time comes – will be exercised with all the legalistic exactitude of a contract attorney by any doctor who knows what’s good for him.

DrRich thinks that Americans are right in being suspicious of the big push they are seeing to urge advance directives upon them. Invoking “death panels” in this regard is utterly inappropriate, but the end result will suffice. It is good that we have all been given pause.

Still, the concept of advance directives is a good one, and DrRich thinks most Americans might do well to have one. Despite the damage that is being done to them, DrRich thinks advance directives can be salvaged. To this end, DrRich suggests several steps we can all take in executing an advance directive that will actually do what we want it to do:

  1. Don’t be pressured into implementing an advance directive by anybody whose career depends on keeping the Central Authority happy. Unfortunately, this likely includes your doctor if you are not paying your doctor yourself.
  2. Don’t sign a boiler-plate document. These likely will have been drafted with the interests of the Central Authority in mind, with the help of very smart lawyers, and when these documents are called into use in all probability they will be interpreted for the convenience of the Central Authority.
  3. Try to keep your advance directive from showing up in an electronic medical record. Write it yourself, and store it where your loved ones can find it when they need it. Give a copy to your spouse, your children, and perhaps (if you have a direct-pay doctor who works only for you) your physician. This way, since your advance directive will not be immediately available to hospital personnel if you are suddenly incapacitated, no unfortunate and irreversible decisions regarding the aggressiveness of your medical care can be made until your loved ones are notified.
  4. Write your advance directive as a general guideline, with as few specifics regarding particular types of medical care as possible. You should assume that any type of treatment you mention in a negative light will be withheld under any and all circumstances, including circumstances you may not be aware of in which you would want that treatment.
  5. You are not writing your advance directive for the doctors (it is most tragic that we can no longer trust doctors in this regard!); you are writing it to help your loved ones make the right decisions for you, perhaps despite the doctors. So your goal should be to clarify your general desires for your loved ones. Discuss your advance directive with your loved ones after you have written it, and ideally, before you have written it. Your written words will remind them of your wishes when the time is right.

Lest you think, Dear Reader, that  DrRich is merely being sarcastic  here (and why would anyone think so?), he is not. DrRich himself has an advanced directive that attempts to follow these rules. The document is stored at home with his important papers. Mrs. DrRich knows where to find it, and knows DrRich’s general feelings regarding these matters. With the guidance he has provided, DrRich trusts her and his children to make these important decisions for him. For anyone who is interested, DrRich’s advance directive is reproduced, in its entirety, at the end of this post. (The general language, which has been adapted and revised by DrRich for his own use, was originally suggested to him by a good friend who is a superb internal medicine practitioner.)

So. Advance directives are a very good idea, but unfortunately, have been identified by the Central Authority as a potentially powerful cost-cutting tool. Even before Obamacare, certain HMOs were refusing to reimburse hospitals or doctors that provided medical care that seemed to go against specific language contained in an advance directive. That, of course, was child’s play. Now that the Central Authority has gotten hold of them, advance directives will likely be treated the same way as other guidelines are now treated in medicine, that is, as edicts, and thus as vehicles for the criminal prosecution of medical personnel who deign to “interpret” them.

This means that if you wish to take advantage of the benefits which advance directives can provide, you will have to proceed very, very carefully.

DrRich’s Advance Directive:

If I am able to communicate my wishes by any means whatsoever, then I wish to make my own decisions regarding my own healthcare. If, despite my ability to communicate, my condition makes it inconvenient to fully inform me of my situation and all my treatment options, then until such time as it becomes sufficiently convenient to do so, I want everything possible to be done to sustain my life and affect a recovery.

In the event of an incapacitating illness in which I cannot communicate, the basic guideline initially should be to do everything possible to sustain my life and affect a recovery.

After a reasonable period of time (in general, I would consider a week to be reasonable) if no progress has been made in the recovery of my mental function, and the likelihood of mental recovery is judged to be small, then withdrawal of life-sustaining care should be strongly considered. To help my wife and/or children with this decision, I would like to have an evaluation by a neurologist to help clarify the prognosis.

If improvement in my mental status has been made, then efforts to sustain my life and affect a recovery should be continued.

If at any point in my care there is a period of at least two weeks in which I am persistently unable to carry out meaningful communications sufficient to make my own wishes known (in the opinion of my family members and the neurologist), and the likelihood of mental recovery is judged to be small, then I would consider the withdrawal of life-sustaining care to be a blessing.

Richard Fogoros is a cardiologist who blogs at The Covert Rationing Blog.  He is the author of Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians, and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.

 

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