Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Talking about what doctors don't want to talk about
Today's New York Times has an op-ed by Dr. Pauline Chen on "The Most-Avoided Conversation in Medicine" -- i.e., the one that includes the words "you're dying and we've run out of ways to slow it or stop it." Chen's useful suggestion, which probably amount to spitting into the wind but is worth repeating to every medical student and doctor you meet: "I think there is a simple way to change. We could add one question to every discussion we have about patients with terminal illnesses: 'How good is this patient’s end-of-life care?'” In conclusion:
Anyone interested in pursuing this topic further should pick up a copy of the Nov. 15, 2000 (!) issue of JAMA, which was dedicated to End-of-Life Care and included a valuable piece by Dr. Tim Quill, "Initiating End-of-Life Discussions With Seriously Ill Patients: Addressing the 'Elephant in the Room.'"
The forums for posing this question are plentiful in medicine. Every morning and late afternoon, physicians in hospitals “round” on their patients, discussing their decisions in small groups or writing progress notes on patients’ charts. Doctors hold “grand rounds” (lectures before their colleagues) monthly or weekly, and in academic centers, physicians hold regular teaching conferences.
If in these settings we could bring ourselves to ask about each patient’s end-of-life care, we could influence one another in a more personal way than the Support study did. And while we might not get all the details right at first, we would grow more familiar with advance directives and pain treatment and learn to manage our patients’ resuscitation wishes.
We also might find ourselves — as I have found myself with patients since J. R. — one step closer to being the compassionate doctors we have always dreamed of becoming.