Sunday, June 20, 2004

Living wills under fire.

It sounds like the old rap on living wills is being recycled. According to an article in the June 21 Newsday, experts are weighing in on the disutility of living wills. The old rap: (1) Writers of living wills have a hard time predicting with any precision the diagnosis and treatment options that will be their actual end-of-life reality, and so the document has almost no chance of addressing the actual decisions their surrogate decision makers will be confronted with. (2) Considering the imprecision of patient predictions, as well as the limits of language, living wills present sometimes insurmountable interpretive difficulties. (3) And in any event, hospitals seldom know about the existence of a patient's living will until after life-sustaining treatment has been started. In brief: living wills are often too little, too late.

The new rap:
Recently, two University of Michigan researchers, writing in the bimonthly Hastings Center Report, a journal that examines issues in medical ethics, concluded that living wills are useless.

"It's very hard for people to predict their preferences for an unknown health condition," said Angela Fagerlin, a research scientist and co-author of the article. In addition, "decision makers have a difficult time interpreting [living wills]," Fagerlin said.

And Carl Schneider, a law professor and Fagerlin's co-author, says: "In lots of ways, the unsolvable problem is that writing down your intentions clearly is a lot harder than people think it is."
Sound familiar?

Fact is, living wills were never the end-all and be-all of end-of-life decision making, but the weaknesses of the document can be overdrawn. They help the executor and her family get into a discussion mode that will help end-of-life decision making when the time comes. They can, therefore, help surrogate decision makers -- including those holding a medical power of attorney -- take on the emotion and psychological burden of decision making.

Would we be in a world of hurt if living wills were eliminated? No. Can their utility be over-estimated? Sure. But do they serve a potentially valuable function? I think so.
posted by tommayo, 10:16 PM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter