Can a POLST be Hazardous to Your Life?

First, we had the “living wills” developed in the 1970s by the Euthanasia Society US (later renamed the Society for the Right to Die) to allow people to states their wishes for or-most importantly-against certain medical treatments in case they become unable to communicate their decisions. By 1991, The Patient Self-Determination Act was passed and every health care facility was required to ask every patient if they had such a document.

Today, we have many types of such documents including the newest one called the “Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment” (POLST)  that was developed in Oregon (the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide) in 1991.

A POLST is a short document that people can carry with them with checkoffs for CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and tube feedings. And if the person is still alive but unable to communicate, the POLST has checkoffs for whether the person wants “Comfort measures only”, “Limited Interventions” like antibiotics and IV fluids, or “Full treatment”.

Although efforts to pass a national POLST law have failed so far, many states have passed their own versions that lead to serious concerns.

Most recently, Illinois is now considering a POLST bill SB 3524 that amends and expands the previous Health Care Surrogate Act.

Among the changes in the Illinois bill are changing “qualified physician” to “qualified health care practitioner” which  “means an individual who has personally examined the patient and who is an Illinois licensed physician, advanced practice registered nurse, physician assistant, or licensed resident after completion of one year in a qualified graduate medical education program”. (Emphasis added)

The bill also removes the requirement of a witness to the signature of the person, legal guardian or health care surrogate on the POLST form. This is an important requirement to be reasonably certain that the POLST reflects the person’s wishes.

The bill  defines a person’s “qualifying conditions” for a POLST as “Terminal condition”, “Permanent unconsciousness”, or “Incurable or irreversible condition” (a definition that alarms many disability groups).

The bill also defines “Life-sustaining treatment” as “any medical treatment, procedure, or intervention that, in the judgment of the attending physician, when applied to a patient with a qualifying condition, would not be effective to remove the qualifying condition or would serve only to prolong the dying process“. (Emphasis added)

Also, the bill states that the health care provider acting on the POLST in “good faith” is not “subject to any criminal or civil liability, except for willful and wanton misconduct, and may not be found to have committed an act of unprofessional conduct.” (Emphasis added)

A February 16, 2020 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment and Limiting Overtreatment at the End of Life” had this chilling observation about physicians’ attitudes and POLSTs:

Even with the best of counseling, some patients will refuse any limitations of treatment—36% of the patients in the study by Lee et al1 had POLSTs that indicated “full treatment,” presumably including admission to the ICU, mechanical ventilation, and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, if necessary. While receipt of these therapies would be considered POLST-concordant care, clinicians sometimes object to providing care that they perceive will be unbeneficial or even harmful. These conflicts between clinicians and patients or their surrogates are a common problem in ICU care and are seen as a major contributor to distress and frustration among clinicians.” (Emphasis added)


A 2013 article “The Problem with POLST – Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment” succinctly describes the problems with POLST and what we should instead be striving for:

“POLST only makes sense in cases of patients with terminal illnesses, in end stage disease with no real options. By that point in time there are no therapeutic treatment decisions to be made. Yet, a patient who is under treatment who is living with a disease, there are alternative treatment decisions to be made. There are risks to weigh and an up to date informed consent required. It cannot be left up to a patient to research new literature and evidenced based medical standards.

POLST even precludes an assessment by a paramedic to make any decisions on overall survivability at the time of emergency care in the field. Surrogate decision makers are not consulted, advance health directives are not read or considered, and second opinions are not sought. Intelligent and experienced assessments are precluded by POLST. In cases of non-terminal patients POLST does not respect society’s moral mandate to respect life and instead treats life cavalierly by simply pinning a card on a person’s chest with life and death decisions of timely and clear origin.” (Emphasis added)

As a former hospice, oncology and ICU nurse, I wholeheartedly agree!