Friday, September 19, 2014
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Doctors die differently than their patients

Do anything it takes to save him. These are the unfortunate pleas that too many patients and their families make when dealing with terminal illness and end-of-life decisions. They often don't want the fancy treatment, the life-prolonging chemotherapy, or the 2-hour-long cardiac resuscitation (CPR). They know the consequences, and they just say no.

Doctors die differently than their patients

A female patient in a hospital bed with an IV drip in the foreground. Selective focus on the IV drip.
A female patient in a hospital bed with an IV drip in the foreground. Selective focus on the IV drip. iStockphoto

“Do everything you can, doctor. Do anything it takes to save him.”

These are the unfortunate pleas that too many patients and their families make when dealing with terminal illness and end-of-life decisions. While the use of advance directives helps alleviate this problem by informing doctors in advance about a patient’s end-of-life wishes, there is still an underlying belief that medicine can cure everyone, even those people with the most terrible prognoses.

But doctors die differently than their patients. They often don’t want the fancy treatment, the life-prolonging chemotherapy, or the 2-hour-long cardiac resuscitation (CPR). They know the consequences, and they just say no.

In 2011, physician Ken Murray wrote an anecdotal essay on physicians’ end-of-life decisions called How Doctors Die. In 2012, Dr. Murray followed up with a second essay, Doctors Really Do Die Differently, which provided statistical evidence of the assertions he made in his first essay.

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According to Dr. Murray, one physician friend was uninterested in taking advantage of his own invention to triple the survival rate of pancreatic cancer patients – from 5% to 15% – albeit with a poor quality of life. Instead, the physician left the hospital after his initial diagnosis, enjoyed time with his loved ones, and died a few months later.

While treating patients hooked up to dozens of tubes, machines, and medications, countless physician friends have said to Dr. Murray in varying ways, “Promise me if you find me like this that you’ll kill me.’ Some even wear jewelry marked “no code” to instruct providers to not perform CPR if the need arises

Of course, not all physicians follow the path Dr. Murray suggests. But in his second article, he provides statistical evidence of his experiences.

The Johns Hopkins Precursors Study was conducted based on the medical histories and decisions of a voluntary group of older physicians who graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine classes of 1948 through 1964. According to the study, 65% of the surveyed doctors had written an advance directive, whereas only about 20% of the public does so. Approximately 90% of the physicians responded that they would not want CPR if they were in a chronic coma, whereas only about 25% of the public gives the same answer.

So why do doctors die differently?

Every day, doctors see the effect of what they call “futile care.” They see patients languishing in the ICU, attached to ventilators, tube feeds, and other devices keeping them alive. On the other hand, many patients only see what is on TV.

A 1996 study found that CPR showed on television was successful 75% of the time and that 65% of the patients went home. On the other hand, a 2010 study of more than 95,000 cases of CPR in Japan found that only 8% of patients survived for more than one month and of those, only about 3% led normal lives post-code. Approximately 3% were in a vegetative state, and about 2% were alive with a “poor” outcome. And a 2010 study looked at terminal patients who did not want CPR but got it anyway. Of the 69 patients studied, eight regained a pulse, but, within 48 hours, all were dead.

Physicians may also make different recommendations for their patients than they would follow themselves. Physicians often feel that failing to save a patient shows weakness and professional inadequacy. This sentiment does not necessarily carry over to saving themselves.

If physicians feel that certain end-of-life and terminal illness treatments are futile, they should be open and clear with their patients. While the ultimate decision belongs to you, the patient, sometimes it is time to say enough is enough. And your physician is in the best place to help you determine when that time is.

-          By Erica B. Cohen

About this blog

The Field Clinic reports and analyzes health care laws, government policies, and political trends that are transforming the care we receive and the way we pay for it. Read more about our panel of bloggers here.

This blog is produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health-policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente. Portions of this blog may also be found on Inquirer.com and in the Inquirer's Sunday Health Section.

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Robert I. Field, Ph.D., J.D., M.P.H. Professor, School of Law & Drexel School of Public Health
Jeffrey Brenner, MD Founder of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Medical Director of the Urban Health Institute at Cooper University Healthcare
Andy Carter President & CEO, The Hospital & Healthsystem Assoc. of Pa.
Robert B. Doherty Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs & Public Policy American College of Physicians
David Grande, MD, MPA Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania
Tine Hansen-Turton Chief Strategy Officer of Public Health Management Corporation
Drew A. Harris, DPM, MPH Director of Health Policy Program at the Jefferson School of Population Health
Antoinette Kraus Director of the Pennsylvania Health Access Network
Laval Miller-Wilson Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Health Law Project
David B. Nash, MD, MBA Founding Dean of the Jefferson School of Population Health
Mark V. Pauly, Ph.D. Professor of Health Care Management, Business Economics and Public Policy at The Wharton School
Howard J. Peterson, MHA Managing Partner of TRG Healthcare, a national healthcare consulting firm
Donald Schwarz, MD, MPH Deputy Mayor for Health & Opportunity and Health Commissioner for the City of Philadelphia
Paula L. Stillman, MD, MBA Healthcare consultant with special expertise in population health and disease management
Elizabeth A. W. Williams Senior Vice President & Chief Communications Officer for Independence Blue Cross
Krystyna Dereszowska A third-year law student concentrating in health at Drexel
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