Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Futile Care – Who's for the Blood and Gore?

Today the New York Times has a piece about the dilemmas of futile care.

What is futile care?

Glad you asked.

Futile care is essentially the idea that for many patients, there comes a point where medical treatment is useless, because it will not improve their condition. On its face, this seems reasonable, except for at least two points. One, we had better be careful about what we define as futile care. Why? Because, increasingly, feeding and hydration are being classified as medical treatments, ergo, they can be judged as medically futile and therefore withdrawn. Two, futile care arguments slip very easily into the realm of doing what’s cost effective. How so? Well, if there is an expensive medical intervention (and almost all medical interventions for these patients are expensive) wouldn’t the treatment be better utilized on someone who has a much better chance of getting better?

The NYT piece shows how biased the media has become when reporting on end-of-life issues, because it goes out of its way to tell us how awful and horrific end-of-life interventions can be.

The piece makes a stab at balance, noting that not all doctors think futile care is the way to go, and also acknowledges that sometimes it is more loved ones’ denial of the obvious, if painful reality. That’s fair enough – as far as it goes.

But read the opening sentence:

Aggressive treatment at the end of life — frantic CPR for a brain-dead accident victim, inserting a feeding tube in a dying Alzheimer’s patient — has become a staple of the health care debate. Critics argue that vast resources are squandered on care that is obviously futile.

No exactly nuanced, and it sets an unfortunate tone, especially entertaining the notion that it’s OK to starve Alzheimer’s people to death.

It goes downhill from there. Soon we are in the grimly grotesque world of a twenty-first century Frankenstein:

The subject of the first essay was a 2-year-old boy, severely brain-damaged from a birth defect. He was dead — his heart had stopped. His doctors and nurses knew that no matter how hard they might try to resuscitate him, they would never succeed. But they tried anyway; aggressively jamming large bore needles into his chest, pounding on him, applying paddles to shock his heart. One nurse was so upset she almost vomited.

Medically, this is accurate, I suppose. But you could couch open-heart surgery, drilling into a patient’s brain to relieve bleeding or even stitching up a gaping wound in exactly the same way – many medical interventions are gory, but that doesn't mean we don't do them. If we didn't, we'd never perform transplant surgery, amputations that save lives, or reattaching a severed limb, all interventions that are very often successful and for which patients are very grateful.

Later, in discussing CPR, the Times again prefers the gory option:

It’s a violent procedure, Dr. Helft said, “very invasive and disturbing.” Medical personnel press on a person’s chest with such force that they break ribs. They stab large bore needles into the chest to administer fluids and drugs. They shock the heart with bursts of electricity.

Well, not exactly. CPR does not necessarily mean ribs get broken. It's possible, and sometimes it happens, but suggesting that it's always the case is bunk. Emphasizing the gore betrays where the writer’s sentiments lie.

Here’s a further quote about that same little boy:

Dr. Helft explained why. “In a sense what it does is, it says that we are doing this procedure, using this procedure on the boy to benefit the family,” he said. “We are using this boy as a means to an end, an end unrelated to his own well-being. You will hear clinicians say this all the time: ‘Even though the patient is already gone, we are treating the family now.’ There are lots of other ways the family can be treated.”

OK, I see - the boy’s wellbeing was to be dead. That’s not a cynical observation. If you read much of the medical literature you can’t get away from the perception among many that death is a form of wellbeing over living and suffering.

Just like for your pet dog.

Let me be clear: There is clearly a time when reality means all medical efforts should cease. However, the trick is to know when to desist - and therein lies the judgment of the medicos, who are very far from perfect in what they can prognose.

The way they see it, however, Doctor Power should prevail.

Let’s look at the second reported case, DeeDee, an elderly woman with advanced Alzheimer’s disease who was subjected to “aggressive” resuscitation efforts and survived:

DeeDee was saved. She’s still demented, of course, and cared for round the clock by dedicated attendants.

See? What a waste of time, effort, and money. We still have to care for this demented woman around the clock, such a waste of energy and money.

Money spent on a demented old lady could have been better spent on people who are in their right mind.



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