Death Panels and Advanced Care Planning

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, discusses the need for effective public health announcements to encourage people to explain their end of life wishes and their values, goals and preferences. It has been well established that physicians are reluctant to discuss end of life choices with their patients and the norm has been to put it off until the patient is in advanced terminal disease when it is, indeed, more difficult to discuss. Studies have also shown that the majority of patients said they would choose to forego futile care but few are presented with this option.

The failure to have this conversation at an appropriate time may end up having the patient frightened and confused and unable to have a meaningful discussion after being fully and intelligently informed about the risks of further treatment and the progression of their illness and the physicians frightened to raise the subject late in the game and give their patient the impression that he or she is being giving up on.

Legislation was proposed in recent Health Reform bills requiring physicians to “offer” to discuss advanced health care planning was met with chants of “Death Panels” in the media partly as a result of prior vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s claim’s of “Death Panels.” She based this on President Obama’s choice for Chair of the NIH Department of Bioethics and concurrent, and seeming conflicting position, as White House Office of Management and Budget – Ezekiel Emanuel. Emanuel has forthrightly stated that young children and elderly should not receive basic health care, not only in times of epidemics or pandemics but in general as it applies to scarce medical (economic) resources. This was easy fodder for Palin’s accusations of death panels in proposed health reform legislation.

In the JAMA article Drs. Terri Fried and Margaret Drickamer; argue for public health announcements to urge advance care planning.

“Delivering these messages will require broad outreach,such as through the use of public service announcements.…Although the process of personal participation in ACP should take place on the clinical level with an individualized interaction between patient and clinician, the process of encouraging participation in ACP must occur on the population level

This will be difficult especially t this time because of recent increased mistrust of government proposals. In my view the trust exists between physicians and their patients and thus the answer lies in vigorous efforts to educate medical students and physicians in the need for, and the methods of discussing advanced care planning at an appropriate time. 


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