‘Light in the darkness’ by Pat Cegan
A recent thread on Twitter brought up a subject that is really spoken about. Elin Roddy kicked it off with a comment that patients admitted to nursing homes should routinely be engaged in conversation about their preferences towards end of life. With habitual frankness, she later commented that there is a danger that those working in hospitals who are more willing and able to do this, run the risk of gaining a ‘reputation’. Others confirmed that they had indeed become known in their Trusts as being prepared to discuss resuscitation and sign DNACPR forms.
This is something that has bothered me for a long time, being one of the self-acclaimed “willing”. What if a doctor acquires a reputation as being comfortable with the fact that their patients might die? Might that realism be construed as nihilism? Might they come to be regarded less as a saver of life, but rather an usher into the next? Uncomfortable!
Doctors lie on a spectrum. Some cannot bring themselves to consider the possibility of death, and continue to propose active treatment even when the patient does not seem to be responding. Others readily identify signs and symptoms indicating that life expectancy is limited, and are prompted to initiate a (sometimes) difficult discussion about end of life care. Some move across different points on the spectrum, but it is quite possible that they feel at home near one end or other.
If a doctor actively seeks the signs of imminent dying in the belief that they will save patients the burden of futile treatment, there is a theoretical danger that they will fail to recognise opportunities for saving them. A doctor on the other end of the spectrum may identify ‘survivors’, and during their career may be credited with helping to save patients that others would have ‘given up’ on. However, in doing so they will probably push more patients through periods of aggressive and ultimately futile treatment. How many ‘failures’ it takes to justify one ‘success’? This sounds like an overly cold and impersonal way of looking at things, but it is a justifiable metric. In my recent paper on DNACPR decisions, I cited a study by Paniagua et al, who found that ‘29 octogenarian patients with cardiac arrest have to be treated with CPR to net one long-term survivor’. That ratio doesn’t look good.
As a patient, do you want your doctor to be the one who looks for any chance to cure, or who accepts that death is sometimes inevitable and changes their approach swiftly if things are not going well?
Of course, it all depends on clinical context, and on your wishes. However, in the 8th and 9th decades, when physical frailty is significant, comorbidities sometimes numerous, and mental capacity variable, the assessment very much depends on the doctor’s perception. Their instinctive position on the aforementioned spectrum may make a big difference.
They may be influenced by the type of patients they tend to see; their case-mix. A palliative care doctor will spend his or her days looking out for signs of terminal deterioration, and (almost by definition) will not be looking for opportunities to commence heroic new treatments. The elderly care physician will try to balance the burden of curative or preventative treatment against the realistic benefits. In my specialty, hepatology, I see patients in their third and fourth decade who look as though they are going to die in the next week or two (usually from multiple organ failure as a complication of cirrhosis). But, being young, they might pull through if we keep supporting them in the ICU. The reward, survival, seems to justify any cost – long weeks in ICU, months convalescing. But the price (not mine, the patient’s) to pay for failing to recognize that organ support is not working, and carrying on with fingers crossed just in case there’s a ‘turnaround’, is a prolonged death attached to multiple life-support machines.
Negotiating optimism and pessimism in these situations is difficult, and as I described in a recent case report, fluctuations in clinical condition that result in changes of tack on the part of the medical team can result in what looks, in retrospect, like vacillation. This goes to show that few of us are comfortable in diagnosing dying, and, especially in younger patients, will always choose life-prolonging/saving treatment if there is a chance, however small, that it will work.
There are other, perhaps less noble, drivers to continuing with aggressive treatment in the face of apparent futility. Perhaps a patient’s management is being led by another consultant or team, and it does not feel right or comfortable challenging their decision. Perhaps the underlying disease is well outside my expertise, and I do not feel confident commenting on the likely disease trajectory. Perhaps the team treating a patient are known to be therapeutically aggressive, and are bound to take suggestions that they should rationalize treatment badly. Perhaps I have seen too many patients die recently, and just want a good news story…
In my view, as a doctor who is generally comfortable and accustomed to recognizing futility, we must be careful not to lose the ability to see glimmers of hope, even if those glimmers are not apparent until the murky surface presented by illness is scratched away by a period of active, optimistic treatment. As long as we are able to admit defeat when things are going wrong, and brave enough to explain that to our patients or their families, it seems reasonable to sit on the optimistic end of the spectrum most of the time.
In this way we might witness recovery against the odds, feel good about, and use those cases to motivate and enthuse our teams. At the same time, there is no harm in being known as a realist who can identify the signs futility when they begin to accumulate, and who is willing to change direction even if that means pushing against the prevailing wind.