Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Medically inappropriate treatment" - how do we decide?

There's a good piece in the NY Times today about dialysis, when and how it should be withheld, and who should decide: "Choosing a 'God Squad,' When the Mind Has Faded" by Barron Lerner, MD. Here's how it starts:
Would you want your tax dollars to pay for dialysis for a patient with irreversible brain damage? In 1972, when Congress agreed to use Medicare money to finance dialysis for patients with end-stage kidney failure, this question had never come up.

But now, new research shows, many patients on dialysis have severe mental impairment. Is it appropriate, or even possible, to refuse to give patients this treatment?

The article mentions Medicare's End-Stage Renal Dialysis program, which covers dialysis for all who are medically qualified to receive it; the article then takes a trip down the resource-allocation highway, followed by an abrupt turn down a more patient-centered boulevard:

But there were new problems. For one, the bill’s sponsors underestimated the demand for dialysis, now given to more than 300,000 patients a year, at a cost of more than $16 billion. It also became clear that the technology was, in some cases, being used indiscriminately.

In 2000, Dr. Alvin H. Moss, director of the Center for Health Ethics and Law at West Virginia University, led a committee of the Renal Physicians Association and the American Society of Nephrology that developed guidelines on the use of dialysis. It was found to be inappropriate for those with “irreversible, profound neurological impairment,” among others. The committee also said it was reasonable to consider withholding dialysis from patients with terminal illnesses unrelated to the kidneys. . . .

“The renal-care team has the right to refuse to offer dialysis when the expected benefits do not justify the risks,” Dr. Moss said. At his home institution, Dr. Moss is taking a more hard-line approach, saying no to families who request what he believes is inappropriate dialysis. At other times, he offers the dialysis, but if the patient doesn’t improve, it is stopped.

So far he has not been sued, he said, citing thoughtful discussions he has had with family members about what dialysis can and cannot achieve.

But the fear of lawsuits continues to worry many nephrologists who believe that it is safer to provide dialysis. And there remains that old American unwillingness to let people die, even when it is surely their time.

Dr. Valeri, of Columbia, knows this feeling well. If he suggests to relatives that dialysis be withheld for a gravely ill family member, they confuse it with euthanasia. “They think you are just another Kevorkian,” he said.

In a microcosm, this is exactly the discussion we've been having in Texas this year, as we debate the merits of Texas' so-called "futility law," which allows hospitals to stop life-sustaining treatment when a physician says the treatment is not appropriate and an ethics committee agrees (§ 166.046 of the Health & Safety Code). Are there limits beyond which otherwise appropriate care becomes inappropriate? What is the source of those limits: benefits/burdens ratio for the patient? benefits/burdens for society? a professional ethos among nephrologists (pulmonologists, cardiologists, intensivists, et al.)? Is the threat of litigation a good thing or a bad thing? What do we mean by good end-of-life care? If the technological imperative is resisted, is that euthanasia or the wise practice of medicine?

posted by tommayo, 10:43 AM

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