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Medical Care Choices in Idaho at the End of Life Part I

MH900407008[1]Medical Care Immediately Prior to Death

In the first half of the 20th century, most people who died had an accident or contracted a disease or they had a physical disorder that inevitably lead to death. Life-saving medical interventions such as sophisticated resuscitation, complicated surgeries, life-saving treatments, ventilators, feeding tubes and other life-support were rarely used or even available. Nowadays there is great emphasis on curing medical problems sometimes to the exclusion of recognizing that death might be a more welcome outcome.

Surveys indicate that older people are often more afraid of death than younger people. But for all Americans -- young and old -- there is a great fear of death and oftentimes the families of those loved ones, who are near the end-of-life, will go to great lengths to try interventions that may be ineffective in prolonging life. We need only look to the Terri Schiavo case as a reflection of the attitude of many Americans who are unwilling to let loved ones pass on. Estimates are that about 30% of Medicare reimbursements are spent on people in the last year of their life. It is a fact that much of this medical care did little to prevent death and prolong life. 

According to the Dartmouth Atlas study on death: 

"The quality of medical intervention is often more a matter of the quality of caring than the quality of curing, and never more so than when life nears its end. Yet medicine's focus is disproportionately on curing, or at least on the ability to keep patients alive with life-support systems and other medical interventions. This ability to intervene at the end of life has raised a host of medical and ethical issues for patients, physicians, and policy makers."

The Dartmouth Atlas project uncovered some startling differences in what happens to Americans during their last six months of life. In some parts of the country, nearly 50% of people are in the hospital at the time of death, rather than at home or in a nursing home or other non-hospital setting. In these areas, the likelihood of being admitted to an intensive care unit during the last six months of life is also higher than average - as is the likelihood of being admitted to an intensive care unit during the hospitalization at the time of death. In other parts of the country, the likelihood of a hospitalized death is far smaller, and people who are dying are much less likely to spend time in hospitals during their last six months of life.

The Atlas asked why this was so - why someone living in Miami was so much more likely to receive a great deal of high-tech, expensive medical services, while someone with the same condition who lived in Minneapolis received so much less. The answer appears to be that the capacity of the local health care system - the per-capita supply of hospital beds, doctors, and other forms of medical resources - has a dominating influence on what happens to people who are near death. Those who live in areas like Miami , where there are very high per capita supplies of hospital beds, specialists, and other resources, have one kind of end of life experience. Those who live in areas like Minneapolis or San Francisco, where acute care hospital resources are much more scarce, have very different kinds of deaths.

The question, then, is which is better? From the dying person's perspective, more is not necessarily a good thing - more visits to doctors for someone who is very sick can be stressful and exhausting. For many people a hospitalized death is something to be avoided if at all possible. From the perspective of the health care system, much of the care being given is futile, and accomplishes little. People who live in areas with very high utilization of hospital resources do not live longer than people who die in areas where utilization is lower - and if extension of life is not the goal of intervention, what is? From society's perspective, the cost of this kind of intervention is high, futile, and takes resources away from places where the money might be spent far more productively."

Tomorrow we'll continue this conversation. For more information on this and other estate planning subjects, contact Idaho Estate Planning and schedule a consultation. Remember, good planning is no accident.

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