What To Expect From Death Itself, and Opportunities for Patient Partnering

I remember vividly, from when my sister was dying back in 1997 in the second hospice in the world (link to my parents’ book full text),  how important it was to my mother that when asked what she feared most, she was able to say “the death rattle” and that Dr. Robert Twycross was able to reassure her both of the insignificance of the sound, and that he would in any event make sure that it did not occur.

So, I found a new article by Doctor Sara Manning Peskin in the New York Times particularly powerful and empowering. Under the headline The Symptoms of Dying, Dr Peskin first points out that as the “letting go” gets closer, deaths become more and more similar.

You and I, one day we’ll die from the same thing. We’ll call it different names: cancer, diabetes, heart failure, stroke.

One organ will fail, then another. Or maybe all at once. We’ll become more similar to each other than to people who continue living with your original diagnosis or mine.

Dying has its own biology and symptoms. It’s a diagnosis in itself. While the weeks and days leading up to death can vary from person to person, the hours before death are similar across the vast majority of human afflictions.

Some symptoms, like the death rattle, air hunger and terminal agitation, appear agonizing, but aren’t usually uncomfortable for the dying person. They are well-treated with medications. With hospice availability increasing worldwide, it is rare to die in pain.

And, PLEASE PLEASE, note that last sentence.  Only a couple of days ago, at dinner at our retirement community, it turned out that several of our friends, informed, educated, with great access to services, still had no confidence that they would have a “good death.”

The article  (which is the first of two) then goes on to outline those various stages and symptoms the body may face: The Death Rattle, Air Hunger, and (the wrongly named) Terminal Agitation, and how they are addressed.

I guess the reason I find this relevant to patient partnering is that I think it is really important for anybody facing serious illness to be given information about all of this as soon as possible.  Having that on the table — or at least the general reassurance that it can all be managed when the time comes, will just make it far easier for an honest cooperative partnering discussion about whatever else needs to be engaged.  My guess is that most of those providing care will also become more relaxed when they know that patient and family want to know what will happen, and are willing to share their worries and have them addressed.

Damage Done By Bad Relationships Between Care Team and Patient — Partnering Lessons

A recent Israeli study of NICU rudeness by parents toward staff, reported in the New York Times, found:

[E]ven [ ] mild unpleasantness was enough to affect doctors’ and nurses’ medical skills. Individual performance and teamwork deteriorated to the point where diagnostic skills, procedural skills and team communication were impaired and medical errors were more likely, compared to control scenarios in which the mother would just say something general about being worried. The team’s ability to perform in critical medical situations with sick babies was affected for the rest of the day, the findings suggest.

and, as with a study focused on unpleasantness from medical staff:

Both studies were done in Israel, but the impact of rudeness does not seem to be culturally bound, a concern that was raised in the initial study design. “Israelis are not deemed to be the most polite people in the world; they say what’s on their mind,” Dr. Bamberger said. “The evidence suggests that even in a somewhat rude society, it still has an effect.”

I doubt that very few of us, when we are even a bit brittle with our caregiving team, realize that we may be impacting not only our own care, but those of others (who may indeed respond with additional rudeness.

It turns out that one approach to minimizing he effect on the care team is to provide training to raise the response threshold, such as by showing and categorizing pictures of angry faces.

To my mind, one of the great benefits of a patient partnering approach is that by humanizing patients and the team to each other, it makes it much less likely that rudeness or insensitivity will escalate.  Rather, the recipients will put the behavior in context, understand the overall situation and history, and respond in a lower key way.

Best of all, maybe folks will learn to use this as learning opportunities, making themselves vulnerable, and ultimately increasing their ability to partner.

It would be nice to think about how to change the intake and patient team process to acknowledge the stresses, and to create a culture in which honesty is requested and appreciated.  I suspect that much rudeness is rooted in powerlessness and fear that any serious attempt to obtain an improvement will be rebuffed.

As the Times article concludes:

But it’s critical for the members of the medical team to be aware of the risk and to acknowledge the problem, Dr. Riskin said, in order to help protect one another and deliver optimal care.

“We are human beings; we are affected by rudeness.”



New Hopkins YouTube Video, Patients on “What I Wish You Knew…Sharing Perspective from the Bedside,” Has Many Potential Uses

The new Hopkins video on the expectations of patients will be a powerful tool.  As the link says:

Patients and families from our six Family Advisory Councils were asked a basic question: What is important to you during your health care experience? What do you wish the health care team knew? Each council created a wish list, all with many of the same common themes. Respect, communication, and partnership. These wishes embody the building blocks of patient and family centered care and they serve as a daily reminder to ask ourselves as providers, are we meeting these simple needs to show we care?

As an Oncology Council member who was somewhat involved in the drafting of the list, it really struck me how simple, but massive, the patient “asks” are.  Respect, communication, and partnership.  Of course, the process of gathering these ideas was itself an important clarifying project.

It is my understanding that the video had been primarily conceptualized as a tool to educate doctors and staff.  I would add that, perhaps with some additional framing, it could have great use as a patient-education tool, with the goal of raising expectations among patients.  Such framing might start and end with the hospital making commitments to, and and asking for help from patients to achieve, those commitments, including of course, being explicit when the goals are not met.

We certainly spend time in waiting rooms, when we might be watching videos such as this.  Moreover, as more of the appointment notification and reminder system moves online, why not include links to video like this — ideally with mention of specific steps that patients with improvement ideas might take.

Doctors Asking Patients to Help in the Informed Consent Process

Two doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Mikkael Sekeres and Dr. Timothy Gilligan, have written an article in the New York Times explicitly asking patients to partner in the improvement of the informed consent process.  As they put it:

We’ve seen too many patients regret decisions that they made without fully understanding their options, or the possible outcome. We encourage our patients, and our colleagues, to be partners in what are often life-changing decisions about health care.
(bold added)

The article also includes an honest appraisal of how the process can go wrong, and the possible impact.

They offer these specific requests to patients.

■ Ask us to use common words and terms. If your doctor says that you’ll end up with a “simple iliac ileal conduit” or a “urostomy,” feel free to say “I don’t understand those words. Can you explain what that means?”

■ Summarize back what you heard. “So I should split my birth control pills in half and take half myself and give the other half to my boyfriend?” That way, if you’ve misunderstood what we did a poor job of explaining, there will be a chance to straighten it out: “No, that’s not right. You should take the whole pill yourself.”

■ Request written materials, or even pictures or videos. We all learn in different ways and at different paces, and “hard copies” of information that you can take time to absorb at home may be more helpful than the few minutes in our offices.

■ Ask for best-case, worst-case, and most likely scenarios, along with the chance of each one occurring.

■ Ask if you can talk to someone who has undergone the surgery, or received the chemotherapy. That person will have a different kind of understanding of what the experience was like than we do.

■ Explore alternative treatment options, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each. “If I saw 10 different experts in my condition, how many would recommend the same treatment you are recommending?”

■ Take notes, and bring someone else to your appointments to be your advocate, ask the questions you may be reluctant to, and be your “accessory brain,” to help process the information we are trying to convey.

These are all excellent best practices.

Now, it would be easy to throw back at the doctors – “Well, you and your institution should be putting most of these in place anyway.  Why put it back on us?

But I think that actually misses the point.  Implicit in the article and in the request is the understanding that medical systems are not monolithic, and that change comes much faster under pressure.  So I understand this as a request to demand partnership in consent, and to implement the practices that can help ensure it.  I also understand this as a request that patients, and particularly groups such as Patient and Family Care Councils affirmatively campaign for the full institutionalization of these approaches.

Ideally progress through such an approach will help lay the groundwork for other patient-partnering innovations.  Indeed, informed consent is such a great area in which to start because the law is clear, and the only question is about the effectiveness of the process.

P.S.  This also underlines the value of research, and of understanding the process of creating a culture of partnering.  It might be interesting to give these suggestions as a handout prior to the consultation, and to measure hospital staff attitudes to informed consent and indeed to patient partnering, before starting doing so, and again after a few months.


The Impact of Public Data About Doctors on the Partnering Relationship

In a development that I would normally welcome without any reservation, the wonderful news and investigation website ProPublica has just launched a new service called “Vital Signs” about doctors.

Today we’re launching a project called Vital Signs that puts the most important information from across all of our health care projects in one easy-to-use place, and can alert you when we get new information or when something happens you should know about right away, for example if your provider is now paid more per patient than 90 percent of peers, which may be a sign of overtreatment or use of more costly services.

Our health care databases, including Dollars for Docs and Prescriber Checkup, have long been among the most popular features of our site, and are a key part of the mission of our data team — to help people use data to make better choices and live better lives. We’ve spent years collecting, cleaning and analyzing data about hundreds of thousands of doctors and other health professionals across several different interactive databases. Vital Signs lets you see what matters most across all of them, and dig deeper to explore even more data.

My only, and highly limited question, is whether there is a risk that patients will look up their doctor and misinterpret the data.  Now, this is much more reliable that a Yelp review, or other subjective info.

So, my answer, is that doctors should all look themselves up, welcome and perhaps encourage questions from their patients about the data, and respond with candor and openness.

In return, we patients have to remember that these kid of tools do not necessarily fully explain data, and that these tools should generally be considered the beginning of a conversation, rather than a replacement for it.

I would also encourage major medical institutions to look at the data and see what might be needed to introduce, explain, and contextualize it.  Indeed, they might find things that they need to know about, but did not!

This all takes time, but in the end it can strenghten partnering, which in the end both saves time and improves quality.


NPR Piece on Value of Patient Input Into Research Design

Jill Harrison of Planetree pointed out this nice piece on NPR on the value of bringing patients into the research design process.  It reports on a study testing the approach of classifying and treating malignancies by genetic type rather than initial site.  The report says that the study is having great success in participant recruitment in part because its design incorporated the patient voice.

.  .  .  [T]he researchers who designed the study stopped to ask what would appeal to potential participants. Nancy Roach, a longtime patient’s advocate who lives in rural Oregon, got involved early on, and helped advise the scientists planning this study.  .  .  .

“This is going to sound goofy, but my dad was in advertising,” she tells Shots. “Remember the scrubbing bubbles — Dow scrubbing bubbles? That was my dad. So I grew up watching commercials and thinking about what consumers wanted.”

Roach brought that sensibility to the conferences where the NCI-MATCH trial was being designed. The original plan would have split the study participants who seem to be doing well on the test treatment into two groups. One group would continue the treatment; the other would take a break, called a drug holiday.

I’m not a scientist. I’m not a clinician. I’m there on behalf of patients.” Roach remembers her immediate reaction to that design: “Taking a patient who’s responding to treatment and taking them off treatment? That is not going to fly.”

She correctly anticipated how patients like Nancy Nahmias would have reacted, as they deliberated whether to sign up for the trial.

“I would not have liked that,” Nahmias says. “If it seems to be working, let’s face it, I don’t want to do anything to sabotage myself.”

Dr. Peter O’Dwyer, a University of Pennsylvania oncologist who was involved in the study design, readily admits that “the design had certain attractions, but it clearly had certain flaws.”

As the patient advocate Nancy Roach, points out:

From Nancy Roach’s perspective, it takes a bit of nerve to speak up in a room of doctors and scientists and ask, “Will the results of this study actually help anybody?”

But it’s Roach’s responsibility to ask those basic questions. “I’m not a scientist,” she says. “I’m not a clinician. I’m there on behalf of patients.”

In order to ensure clarity about the extent and stage at which the patient input occurred, I reached out directly to the researchers for some additional information.  This was their response:

Patient input was part of the process from the outset, when the NCI-MATCH trial was still only a concept. A group of cancer research advocates and patients, including Nancy Roach the person quoted by NPR and several others, discussed the pros and cons of the scientific rationale for the “drug holiday” in detail with study leaders, among  various approaches. It became clear that the patients and their advocates were not in favor of this approach. As a result, the idea was abandoned and did not become a part of the trial design, which proceeded to formal and final review by federal regulatory authorities, including the NCI Central Institutional Review Board.


The Implications of Teaching Death Ed in Schools

A recent article by Jessica Nutik Zitter in the New York Times discusses the begining of what could become a trend to engage students with issues of death and dying during high school.

I am a doctor who practices both critical and palliative care medicine at a hospital in Oakland, Calif. I love to use my high-tech tools to save lives in the intensive-care unit. But I am also witness to the profound suffering those very same tools can inflict on patients who are approaching the end of life.  .  .  .

Many of the patients I have cared for at the end of their lives had no idea they were dying, despite raging illness and repeated hospital admissions. The reasons for this are complex and varied — among them poor physician training in breaking bad news and a collective hope that our technologies will somehow ultimately triumph against death. By the time patients are approaching the end, they are often too weak or disabled to express their preferences, if those preferences were ever considered at all. Patients aren’t getting what they say they want. For example, 80 percent of Americans would prefer to die at home, but only 20 percent achieve that wish.  .  .  .

Last week, my colleague Dawn Gross and I taught our first death ed program in my daughter’s ninth-grade class at the Head-Royce School, a private, progressive (and brave) school in Oakland. In the classroom, we had some uncomfortable terms to get out of the way early on, just as I did in sex ed — death, cancer, dementia. We showed the teenagers clips of unrealistic rescues on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy,” and then we debunked them. We described the realities of life in the I.C.U. without mincing words — the effects of a life prolonged on machines, the arm restraints, the isolation. Everyone was with us, a little tentative, but rapt.

After teaching the kids how to play ” Go Wish” a card game designed to help bring out the students own preferences:

Dawn and I walked out with huge smiles on our faces. No one had fainted. No one had run out of the class screaming. The health teacher told us she was amazed by their level of engagement. It is my hope that this is only the first step toward generating wide public literacy about this phase of life, which will eventually affect us all. The sooner we start talking about it, the better.

Let me suggest that this is perhaps the very best way to encourage patient partnering, not just at the end of life, but throughout it.  Those who take “death ed,” will have had experience talking about the realities and about choices from an early age.  They will have considered values and the different roles of health professionals, the family and the patient.  They will be more willing to ask questions (at any age), to empower others to ask questions, and to object when those questions are not appropriately responded to.  I suspect that in many families the students will end up as the facilitators of these difficult conversations because others do not yet have the skills to start them.

I would love to see some follow up studies of those who take these classes and whether they become better at communicating with their own medical professionals, even in the short term.

I would also like to see hospitals and clinics seeing it as part of their mission to expand these kind of discussions into a wide variety of institutions.  I would only also emphasize that it would be a massive lost opportunity if the discussion was limited to the death process.  The truth is that all the same issues lurk in many health processes.  It is just that the issues are much starker when death is on the table.