Why “Living Wills” Are Not Working Well

In a stunning October 8, 2021 article titled “What’s Wrong With Advance Care Planning? in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, three prominent supporters of “living wills” and other advance care documents admit that after 30 years of the promotion of such advance care plan (ACP) documents:

“The assumption that ACP will result in goal-concordant end-of-life care led to widespread public initiatives promoting its use, physician reimbursement for ACP discussions, and use as a quality measure by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, commercial payers, and others. However, the scientific data do not support this assumption. ” (Emphasis added)

Drs. R. Sean Morrison, Diane E Meier, and Robert M. Arnold are prominent doctors and ethicists at prestigious institutions who have long promoted the advance care documents that are asked about when people enter hospitals, nursing homes, long care facilities, etc.

I have been writing about such documents and their uses and hazards for decades.

ACPs were promoted as essential to document a person’s healthcare wishes like Do Not Resuscitate orders and forgoing interventions like feeding tubes and ventilators in the event that the person is unable to speak for himself or herself. Many such documents also designate a trusted friend or relative to assist in the potential future decision-making process.

All adults have been encouraged to make such documents regardless of their health status because it was assumed that such ACPs would lead to higher quality care at the end of life.

But, as the authors now admit: “The inability of ACP to achieve its desired outcomes represents the gap between hypothetical scenarios and the decision-making process in clinical practice settings.” (Emphasis added)

After 52 years of experience working in ICUs, oncology (cancer), dialysis, hospice and home health as well as caring for relatives and friends, I wholeheartedly agree with the authors that:

“Treatment choices near the end of life are not simple, consistent, logical, linear, or predictable but are complex, uncertain, emotionally laden, and fluid. Patients’ preferences are rarely static and are influenced by age, physical and cognitive function, culture, family preferences, clinician advice, financial resources, and perceived caregiver burden (eg, need to provide personal care, time off from work, emotional strain, out-of-pocket or noncovered medical costs), which change over time.” (Emphasis added)

WHAT DOES WORK?

The authors point to the patient having a trusted person in advance to act as a surrogate decisionmaker and improving the communication with healthcare providers in real time. They also point to:

“training clinicians and preparing patients and families to engage in high-quality discussions when actual (not hypothetical) medical decisions must be made is needed to achieve the outcomes that ACP has not.” (Emphasis added)

However, pitfalls still remain.

Patients and their decisionmakers do need accurate information about their conditions and potential treatments.

However, as I found as a nurse, patients and their surrogate decisionmakers often have negative preconceptions (often reinforced in the media) about treatments such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, ventilators, feeding tubes, etc.

Unfortunately in hospital situations, the advance care plans with the common DNR (do not resuscitate) directive are sometimes misinterpreted as not wanting to live  or “do not treat” when the person had assumed it would apply only in extreme circumstances. And some healthcare institutions have medical futility policies that allow doctors to overrule the person’s decisionmaker.

In addition, we have well-funded organizations like Compassion and Choices that not only work to get assisted suicide laws passed in every state but also promote their own advance directive to allow the lethal “healthcare option” of VSED (voluntary stopping of food and water) to ensure death.

Particularly in the frail elderly, it can be difficult to determine whether or not a person is truly dying. And while we are never required to accept treatment that is medically futile or excessively burdensome to us, sometimes this can be hard to determine. Far too many times, feeding tubes and other interventions are automatically assumed to be futile and/or burdensome. But there is another alternative that is often ignored: trying an intervention with the option of stopping it if it truly is futile or burdensome.

There are no guarantees in life or death but even finding out that something doesn’t work can be a step forward and can relieve any guilt in the surviving relatives.

CONCLUSION

I was surprised but very pleased to read that the three prominent doctors writing the article “What’s Wrong With Advance Care Planning?” after years of promoting “living wills” and other end of life documents.

But, in the end, the real answer is a return to the traditional medical ethics of “First, do no harm”, a presumption for life and excellent, unbiased information.

That is why my husband and I made our own healthcare directives to require full information about all options, risks and benefits before making medical decisions.

And, most importantly, that we believe that “quality of life” is something to be improved, not judged.

One thought on “Why “Living Wills” Are Not Working Well

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.