Nurses, “Living Wills” and Healthcare Economic$

A few weeks ago, a 95 year old friend with chronic congestive heart failure was recovering from a hip fracture and blood clot when she developed a very serious pneumonia. I was with her in the ER when the doctor asked her son and I about how aggressive to be if her heart or breathing worsened. I said “Ask her!” and the doc was stunned when she vehemently said “Yes!”, even after he explained the potential problems with cardiopulmonary resuscitation and ventilators. My friend has a durable power of attorney naming her daughter as her health decision maker but the doctor wrongly assumed my friend was unconscious and that we were her decision makers.

My friend astonished the doctors by recovering with antibiotics and temporary BiPap (a face mask machine to support her breathing). After a stint in rehab, my friend was able to go home last week.

It was because of mistaken but potentially fatal situations like this that I wrote my 2015 blog “Living with ‘Living Wills” about the history, uses, problems and pitfalls with living wills and other end-of-life documents known as advance directives.


Just last week, however,  I read two articles by nurses uncritically promoting “living wills”, one in a major nursing journal and one in the LA Times.

The nursing journal article titled “Nurses in the Know: The History and Future of Advance Directives” by Blanca Miller, PhD, RN extolls the benefits of signing an advance directive like a “living will”, durable power of attorney, etc. Ms. Miller insists that nurses have an important role to play in promoting and implementing these documents.

She starts with a history of “living wills” beginning with Louis Kutner’s 1969 law journal article but ignores its’ title “Due Process of Euthanasia: The Living Will, A Proposal” (emphasis added) and the decades long fight to legalize euthanasia in the US by the Euthanasia Society of America  (later renamed the Society for the Right to Die and now known as Compassion and Choices)

When lawyer Kutner proposed his novel document for a person to sign that “if the individual’s bodily state becomes completely vegetative and it is certain that he cannot regain his mental and physical capacities, medical treatment shall cease,” it was a breakthrough moment, according to Nurse Miller.

The next year, The Euthanasia Society of America distributed 60,000 living wills. In 1976, California passed the nation’s first “living will” law called the “Natural Death Act” and other states quickly followed.

Nurse Miller then writes approvingly of controversial withdrawal of feeding cases such as Nancy Cruzan’s  and Terri Schiavo’s as progress, along with the 1990  Patient Self-Determination Act .

Nurse Miller apparently sees no downside to such documents despite medical articles like When Advance Directives Can be Dangerous” and cases like Helga Wanglie’s where doctors went to court to force her family to withdraw life support but a judge upheld Ms. Wanglie’s husband’s right to make medical decisions for her.

Instead Nurse Miller warns that:

“Projections indicate that by 2030, over half of the 8.5 million Americans over 85 years of age will suffer from dementia and have no spouse or children to care for them. Healthcare professionals will be increasingly confronted with concerns regarding individual autonomy and end of life decisions.”

And bemoans that:

“Although federal law requires healthcare providers and institutions to give patients advance directive forms, most patients do not complete them. Completion rates currently range from 18% to 31%.”

Most disturbingly, Nurse Miller approvingly writes that:

“Advance directive laws are still evolving. As seen in (Brittany) Maynard’s case,  Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act (1997) allows patients not only to reject possible life-saving treatments but also to actively accelerate death.”(Emphasis added)

Also pushing “living wills” in a LA Times article “You Should Make Decisions about End-of-life Care Now”, ICU nurse Kristen McConnell states that “the American healthcare system never taught the public that preventing a natural death often results in a wholly unnatural life” and describes “an elderly patient with a history of strokes and dementia who was brought to the emergency department after another large stroke.” She describes caring for him:

“When I am face to face with a patient like this — someone who will never again be able to communicate, and who has been placed on the treadmill of continuous medical care — I feel the same type of shame as when I walk by a cold, crippled homeless person on the sidewalk. The wrongness is just as obvious.”

When I worked as an ICU nurse, I saw similar attitudes among some of my colleagues who said such patients “need to die” even when these patients wanted medical treatment. These nurses criticized these patients’ care as a waste of time and money. Personally, I found it difficult to work with these nurses and, as a potential future patient, I would not want them caring for me.

Unfortunately, such attitudes can become infectious.


In 2012, I wrote an article “Right to Health Care, Duty to Die?” about the disturbing changes I was seeing in healthcare.

Here is an excerpt:

Recently, I had a startling glimpse into the possible future nightmare facing both healthcare and nursing when I read “How Can We Afford to Die?” in the May-June 2012 issue of Nursing Economic$. (No, the “$” is not a typo but evidently a mindset.)

This influential nursing journal, written by nurse educators and others in health care policy positions, devoted the whole issue to death, dying, and cost containment. The agenda quickly became clear as the costs at the end of life were endlessly cited, but concerns about potential abuses were dismissed and conscience rights were not even mentioned in the six articles I read…

In the editorial for this issue of Nursing Economic$ ,  Donna M. Nickitas, PhD, RN   unapologetically even advocates for “punitive reimbursement policies for excessive end-of-life treatments that only prolong life.”

If enacted, such penalties will certainly intimidate many doctors regarding how aggressively to treat you if you are terminally ill, elderly, critically or chronically ill, or even potentially disabled.

This issue of Nursing Economic$ was given in conjunction with the Hospice-Palliative Care Action Plan presented at the Fifth Nursing Economic$ Summit “How Can We Afford to Die?” on June 6, 2012 in Washington, DC, in which an 8-point action plan was also presented. One of the points discussed the importance of getting everyone over the age of 18 to sign “living wills” and other advance directives. But this point had one interesting caveat: “if many patients have advance directives that make positive, cost-conscious systemic change impossible, most of the other efforts discussed as part of our  action plan will go for naught”. (emphasis added).

In other words, not choosing a potentially premature death can upset the economic imperative to reduce health care costs.

In the years since “How Can We Afford to Die?”, I constantly saw new cost-containment measures and government mandates introduced at my institution . I am not surprised that there are now high levels of burnout and depression reported among doctors and nurses, including “moral distress”.


Before my mother developed Alzheimer’s and cancer, she would tell me that she never wanted to be a “burden” on her children. She never was and I would never tell my children the same thing.

We need to expunge the idea of people as “burdens” and embrace the words of the late  Dame Cicely Saunders, nurse, physician and writer, and founder of the true hospice movement:

“You matter because you are you, and you matter to the end of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”





Swedish Citizen Unmasks a Main Physician-assisted Suicide Propaganda Point

Oregon, the first US state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, is routinely promoted by advocates as having the model law for assisted suicide. Now the debate has come to Sweden.

The Swedish National Council of Medical Ethics, an advisory board to the Swedish government and parliament, published a November 20, 2017 report, Assisted Death: A Knowledge Compilation” (an English translation is coming) “to promote a more fact-based debate on assisted dying” and states that the Council “does not take a stand on assisted dying in the report”.

However, Fabian Stahle, a Swedish private citizen who read the report, found a problem.

In his article “Oregon Health Authority Reveals Hidden Problems with the Oregon Assisted Suicide Model” , he notes that:

“As a basis for their reassurance of no slippery slope in the Oregon model, the authors of the Swedish report note that there is one question that is ‘the crucial issue’: is anyone with a non-terminal, chronic disease granted medical assisted death?” (Emphasis in original)

But Mr. Stahle notes that the report says elsewhere that the six-month limit on expected survival time applies, “if no treatment is given to slow down the course of the disease” (Emphasis in original)  and thus “might complicate the the whole idea that the law only applied to the ‘untreatable’ sick where nothing could be expected to extend life beyond six months”.

So Mr. Stahle says he did his own investigation by contacting the Oregon Health Authority himself.  Craig New, Research Analyst with the Oregon Health Authority  replied and told him that:

“…your interpretation is correct: The question is: should the disease be allowed to take its course, absent further treatment, is the patient likely to die within six months” (Emphasis added)

Fabian Stahle went further by asking if the doctor suggests to a eligible patient a treatment that possibly could prolong life or transform a terminal illness to a chronic illness or even cure the disease but the patient refuses, would that patient still be eligible for physician-assisted suicide.

He gave the example of a patient with a chronic disease like diabetes who refuses life-sustaining medication/treatment and becomes likely to die within 6 months and asked if that person would be eligible for assisted suicide.

Oregon’s Mr. New answered yes and that if the patient does not want treatment, that would also be their choice-along with the choice for assisted suicide.

As Fabian Stahle observes, this “allows a sanctioned path to suicide, aided by a physician, for anyone with a chronic illness who is likely to die within six months if they chose to stop treatment.” (Emphasis in original)

Fabian Stahle then asked about patients with a chronic disease whose health insurance company is not willing to pay for the treatment/medication.

Oregon’s Mr. New responded that:

“I think you could also argue that even if the treatment/medication could actually cure the disease, and the patient cannot pay for the treatment, then the disease remains incurable.” (Emphasis added)

And thus the patient is considered eligible for assisted suicide under Oregon’s law. This is especially outrageous.


Unfortunately, much of the public just accepts the Compassion and Choices propaganda that physician-assisted suicide is a safe “choice” with strict regulations for terminally and incurably ill people who are going to die soon anyway. Unfortunately, a mostly sympathetic mainstream media concurs and portrays assisted suicide as a “humane” last resort for extreme cases.

But now, Fabian Stahle, a Swedish private citizen, has done what few people do today even with such a life and death issue: He actually investigated the topic and contacted the Oregon Health Authority to clarify what “terminal” and “incurable” really legally means in Oregon’s “model” law.

Of course, there are many other problems with physician-assisted laws but Mr. Stahle focused on the one cited by the Swedish National Council of Medical Ethics as ‘the crucial issue’: is anyone with a non-terminal, chronic disease granted medical assisted death?”

Mr. Stahle is right to question this. The latest Oregon report on their assisted suicide law shows a range of diseases from cancer to undefined “other illnesses” as well as 43 people whose “ingestion status” of the prescribed overdose is unknown and obviously not followed up to see if or when they died.

Having written medical news analysis articles in the past for a national newspaper, I am appalled by the routine lack of investigative interest in life or death issues like assisted suicide from today’s mainstream media. The public needs and deserves better.

I wish Fabian Stahle was eligible for a Pulitzer Prize.

“MAID” in Laval, Canada

The December 2017 issue of the Canadian medical journal Le Specialiste contains a fascinating but disturbing English language article “First Results from a Unique Study” on pages 36-40.

2015 was the year when the MAID (medical aid in dying, aka physician assisted suicide and even lethal injections in Quebec) Act  took effect. The article is about physicians and MAID in the city of Laval in Quebec, Canada that has a population of about 435,000.

The study made news when it reported that after 18 months, conscientious objections from physicians against providing MAID were far more frequent than anticipated. Prior to the law, 48% of doctors said they would participate, 30% with conditions and only 28% said they would never participate.

Afterwards, 77% of the physicians getting MAID requests refused to actively participate, all of them using the conscientious objection clause, even though the study claimed the majority (72%) were in favor of MAID with only 13% of the doctors neutral or ambivalent.

The most common reason given for refusal was “too much of an emotional burden to bear, followed by a perception of lack of clinical expertise, and a fear of being stigmatized by peers or by people in general for participating.”

Other reasons included not adding to an “already heavy clinical burden”, MAID being “a very time-consuming process” and “medical legal concerns”.

The seemingly obvious takeaway from these surprising refusals is that participating in the killing of patients is much harder in reality than approving gauzy claims of just relieving suffering.


However, the authors did another study “to explore what ‘conscientious objection’ meant to these (refusing) physicians.” Although less than half of the refusing doctors participated in this second study, the authors conclude that legal “conscientious objection” is mostly being used for “reasons other than moral or religious grounds”. They contend that reasons like “high emotional burden, a perception of incompetence to perform the procedure and time constraints” do not meet the classic definition of conscientious objection on moral or religious grounds. They also worry that with the currently low physician participation in MAID, there is a “risk of a looming crisis in access to timely MAID services”.

The authors cite arguments by those who oppose conscientious objection that the authors consider “just as valid” as arguments in favor of conscientious objection:

1. “Consequences for patients” leading to denial of access or delay in treatment.

2.  “Costs for healthcare systems: while the possibility of referring the patient to a colleague exists, this can generate additional costs and prove to be less efficient.” (Note that Canada has a government-controlled health care system.)

3. “A heavy burden on the shoulders of a reduced number of physicians who accept to perform” certain acts.

4.”The importance of professionalism” which means “caring for patients, no matter the type of care required”.


These  two studies have important implications regarding conscience rights for all health care providers, even those outside the MAID policies in Quebec.

Just last April, the very influential Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel co-wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine article “Physicians, Not Conscripts-Conscientious Objection in Health Care” that:

“Health care professionals who conscientiously object to professionally contested interventions may avoid participating  in them directly, but, as with military conscientious objectors, who are required to perform alternative service, they cannot completely absent themselves from providing  these  servicesConscientious objection still requires conveying accurate  information  and  providing  timely  referrals to ensure patients receive care.


“Health care professionals who are unwilling to accept these limits have two choices: select an area of medicine, such as radiology, that will not put them in situations that conflict with their personal morality or, if there is no such area, leave the profession. “ (All emphasis added)

It is ironic how deliberate death decisions defended on the basis of “choice” can easily become “no choice” for those health care professionals dedicated to really caring for patients instead of killing them.

And all of us-whether we are patients or health care professionals-must understand that legalizing physician-assisted suicide inevitably leads to further erosion of medical ethics and thus crucial protections for ourselves, our loved ones and society.