Keeping the options open

There are many reasons why hospital doctors can be slow to engage patients on the question of DNACPR. This is one of them.

A frail patient agrees that a DNACPR form should be put in her notes. Two weeks ago she was admitted with severe pneumonia, and survived a week in ICU on a ventilator. Although she beat the odds, it was made clear to the family that if her chest deteriorated again, she would not benefit from being taken back to ICU.

The DNACPR decision is made a few days after she arrives back on the general ward, once the receiving team have taken the measure of the situation. In the event of a cardiac arrest her pulse might well be regained several minutes into the ALS algorithm (many are, after the elephantine doses of adrenaline that are given), but she would be very unlikely survive to discharge. Indeed, based on the therapeutic ‘ceiling’ set on her discharge from ICU, the option of returning to those same life support machines that are required to bring someone out of a post-cardiac arrest situation has already been ruled out.

DNACPR is clearly appropriate. The form is written. Everyone agrees, including the patient.

Then she vomits up a bowlful of blood. It looks like it could be a stomach or duodenal ulcer. Her blood pressure drops, but improves with some rapidly infused fluid, then some packed red cells. But the blood keeps coming, and it is clear that she needs an endoscopy to confirm the diagnosis and, hopefully, treat it. She is too frail to be brought down to the endoscopy department; her breathing is shallow, her blood pressure is labile. She needs to be stabilised in ICU. A phone call is made. The ICU registrar attends the ward. She flicks through the notes,

“She’s clearly not an ICU candidate. It’s all over the notes.”

“That was written in case of a respiratory deterioration. This is different.”

“How?”

“It’s a bleed. It could be reversed. I accept that she shouldn’t receive multiple organ support, but she needs two or three days of close monitoring, perhaps a bit of vasopressor support* if her BP drops to keep the kidneys going. If the endoscopist can stop the bleeding she could be out of there in a day and back on the ward.”

“It rarely happens like that.”

“I’m not comfortable with the idea of her bleeding out here. Yes, she is frail, yes if she arrests, I accept it’s over. But there may well be a straightforward, treatable lesion there.”

The registrar withdraws to liase with her senior. He attends. He reads the notes, takes in the DNACPR form, heads in to look at the patient, and emerges from the curtained bay.

“I think we should honour the DNACPR… keep her comfortable…”

The medical consultant stares, trying hard to disguise his disgust.

’Honour the DNACPR’! The DNACPR has nothing to do with her treatment in this situation. It is not a symbol designed to ensure instant palliative care. This is precisely why we don’t do DNACPRs when perhaps we should, because of this sort of….”

And he goes on, building up steam, accessing his frustration. In the end a compromise is reached… but the point has been made, and it is worth considering in more detail.

The question to consider here is – Do DNACPR forms materially influence a patient’s chances of being treated aggressively in the event of an emergency? On the face of it, they should not. The DNACPR is there to make it clear to whoever happens to be on the ward at the time, that the crash team should not be summoned. Death should be allowed to occur naturally. It says nothing about endoscopies, monitoring on the ICU, short term vasopressors… Moreover, every version of the DNACPR form I have seen emphasises that it is not irrevocable, it can be rescinded if circumstances change.

Yet, surely, there must be a close correlation between DNACPR status and ‘not for ICU’. The chances of surviving an ICU admission are driven by the same physiological parameters as those that determine survival after cardiac arrest. Looking at the figure below**, you can see how CPR sits at the apex of medical interventions, just above ICU.

 

Although I cannot find the studies to confirm this, in my experience, most if not all patients who are not for CPR are also not for ICU. The two go hand in hand. Therefore, by filling out a DNACPR for my patients, I am also making a statement, that he or she should not be considered for admission to ICU. But what if that is not the message I wish to convey? I can make an explanatory note; I can use a better ‘form’ (eg. ReSPECT, recently promoted in the BMJ, yet to be used nationwide). But I cannot overturn the impression that a DNACPR form makes on many colleagues, that the death of the patient should not come as a surprise, and that efforts to reverse an unexpected but life-threatening problem should not be strenuous.

‘Honour the DNACPR.’ I have heard that phrase. It is because those six initials carry so much weight, and may exclude the possibility of life-extending measures, that I, and others, are sometimes slow to start the conversations around resuscitation.

The larger point I take away from this scenario is that forms, even subtle ones like ReSPECT or other treatment escalation processes, are ill-suited to the multitude of ways in which patients can change suddenly. Although they come with the caveat that they should not be used as blanket statements, they can be read as headline summaries about how to approach patients. Different doctors will read them in different ways. To keep the options open, many doctors will choose to delay allowing those headlines to enter the notes.

 

* a powerful drug infused to keep up the blood pressure

** Taken from Dahill et al, Improving documentation of treatment escalation decisions in acute care  BMJ Qual Improv Report 2013;2

[Fictional scenario]

 

For more on the reasons why DNACPR decisions can be delayed, explore this booklet…

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2 comments

  1. “The question to consider here is – Do DNACPR forms materially influence a patient’s chances of being treated aggressively in the event of an emergency?”

    My response is: Yes, they do.

    My history is that of a RMN (now retired), so my opinions are not that of a doctor, rather an observer of what is.

    Until retirement, I had worked in care homes for over twenty years and like most homes – don’t believe all you read in the press (although I accept there are some really bad care homes) – excellent care was offered and given.

    Although prior to the ?de rigueur of DNAR it was not unusual for a few of our hospital admitted residents, although by no means appearing to be at deaths door, never to return home, as well, they were old, so no aggressive treatment given as they were just old and therefore their life was deemed to have little or no value…and then the placing of DNAR’s – what a terrible chance now of anyone returning home…

    This was really brought home to me last autumn when my husband (H) suffered a stroke – he has a DNAR in place. There were queues to resus so H was treated in the corridor. To be fair, despite L-sided paralysis he was fully conscious and able to respond to commands. (I must state that H has dementia…so presumptions by hospital staff made…obvious in what followed.)

    The stroke consultant arrived some twenty-five minutes later and his first words to me – said over H, as if he didn’t exist, were: I see there is a DNAR in place, so we we’ll just make him comfortable. My immediate response being: NO! DNAR does not mean DNT. You are not just going to let him die. (I too, in the heat of the moment, being out of order, saying this over H – and he began thrashing about with terror in his eyes.)

    He was given treatment, but three more times during his time on the ward, we (his family) were taken aside for the talk in which we were advised treatment was futile. We did not relent.

    The outcome, five months later, is that full movement has returned as has his speech (and these did not take the five months) – he still takes a pureed diet, although this is to be and needs to be re-assessed. Although no longer mobile he has fully regained quality of life, the quality of life he enjoyed prior to the stroke.

    Without my interventions – my acting as advocate for him – he would be long dead…

    Kind regards
    Anna :o]

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