A Study of Why People Choose Assisted Suicide Has Important Lessons for Patient Partnering

An important article in the Washington Post should trigger some thoughts.  As the article explains:

But a study released Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests the answers may be surprising: The reasons patients gave for wanting to end their lives had more to do with psychological suffering than physical suffering.

The study, based on information from Canada’s University Health Network in Toronto, represents all 74 people who inquired about assistance in dying from March 2016 to March 2017. Most were white and were diagnosed with cancer or a neurological disorder like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“It’s what I call existential distress,” explained researcher Madeline Li, an associate professor at University of Toronto. “Their quality of life is not what they want. They are mostly educated and affluent — people who are used to being successful and in control of their lives, and it’s how they want their death to be.  .  .  .  One of the main things these patients bring up has to do with “autonomy.” It’s a broad philosophical concept that has to do with being able to make your own decisions, not being dependent on others, wanting to be able to enjoy the things you enjoy and wanting dignity.

The article cites several other studies that come to similar conclusions.  My first thoguht that the pain issue is easy to grasp, and a clear and dramatic focus of fear for anyone who thinks about it.  My own, perhaps overoptimistic view, is that it is a very rare case in which pain can not be satisfactorily managed provided you have access to the right experts.

But it is not the case that giving people a reason to want to live is viable for everyone.  It depends on the person, on what gives them identity, purpose and satisfaction.  If that is taken away, why on earth stay here, unless you are forced to.

When my sister, back in 1977, when given the news that (at 25) she was indeed dying of melanoma, and quickly, she asked our family physician what would happen if she asked for help dying.  His response has stayed with me all my life:  “That would mean we had failed you.”

That response works at the pain level, but it obviously works at the purpose and satisfaction level.  I would suggest that those dealing with those of us in decline should think about how to start conversations on what provides that satisfaction — and what might provide it as capacities decline.  Hopefully there is then time to learn to take please from things that have not previously given the same pleasure or purpose.

Indeed, the earlier the discussion starts, the better, and it should not be put off until the only short term outcome is death.

 

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.