End-of-Life Care is Often Futile, Costly

Cheryl Clark, November 18, 2010

Once again, the folks at the Dartmouth Atlas Project have pointed to an elephant in the room. There the beast sits—the enormous amount of far too aggressive, painful, costly and often futile care, which too many doctors and hospitals provide during a Medicare patient's last 14 or 30 days of life.

The Dartmouth team's report, entitled Quality of End-of-Life Cancer Care for Medicare Beneficiaries: Regional and Hospital-Specific Analyses, shows the wide, and hard to explain, variation across the country in care provided in the last month or two weeks of a patients life. Its data tables look at cancer care practices within regional referral networks and specific hospitals for 235,821 end-stage cancer patients who died between 2003 and 2007. 

The Atlas shows that this aggressive care was provided to patients whose type and stage of cancer predicted extremely poor prognosis, even for the short-term, and for whom such care is likely futile. Cancers like pancreatic, lung, and some types of leukemia and lymphoma were included in the analysis.

This is care that many patients would reject if they were told the truth: that there is very low probability their time spent in a hospital—often in an intensive care unit—will increase their number of days, the authors say.

In some cases, aggressive treatment with chemotherapy, endotracheal intubation, feeding tube placement and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, can hasten death, or at least severely weaken the patient and limit their ability to communicate with loved ones in the time when that's of greatest importance.

Is this what some might truly want? Some, perhaps. But for others, decidely not.

But in many parts of the country patients are much less likely to hear about the negative ramifications of extended treatment before they and their families make a decision about their care, the report shows.

At a forum to discuss the report Tuesday, David Goodman, MD, lead author and co-principal investigator, said that what these patients need are hospice and palliative care services that allow those last few days to be as pain-free as possible, perhaps in the comfort of a patient's own home, surrounded by family and friends and family.  But here again there is huge variation in when and what kinds of hospice services they are provided.

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