by Carol Marak
There is a geriatric population explosion in the United States, and policies for improving care and quality of life for the elderly have come to the forefront. Last year, Medicare modified payments to cover counseling sessions for providers and patients when discussing end-of-life issues. The topic is a sensitive one; having these discussions may lower health care spending. Since 25 percent of Medicare payments apply to the last year of life, these conversations could limit treatment. According to a 2010 Health Services Research study, 63 percent of beneficiaries receive hospital care in the last few months of life.
Public and private hospitals lack the services needed to educate patients regarding palliative care. The new Medicare ruling allows voluntary advance care planning during patients’ annual checkups. The provision aims to forego aggressive life-sustaining treatment and help beneficiaries deal with complex decisions when approaching death.
The National Institutes of Health notes that doctors are trained to maintain health and fight illness and, thus, receive insufficient guidance on how to communicate with dying patients. And since our society is death-averse, it is not surprising that physicians find it difficult to engage in “terminal state” consultations. For them, death is a medical failure. However, advocates of Medicare’s ruling recognize that good communication can dispel fears, minimize pain and suffering, and enable patients and their families to experience a peaceful death.
A few members of the SeniorCare.com Aging Council offer advice to initiate end-of-life conversations:
Scot Cheben, CareGivingAnswers.com, encourages doctors and patients to have ongoing group conversations that include a trained gerontologist or social worker.
Kathy Birkett, SeniorCareCorner.com, sees doctors ideally positioned to have an end-of-life dialogue. Doctors don’t have to know everything but need to get the process started and then help patients complete the journey.
Caryn Isaacs, GetHealthHelp.com, remembers a client who refused to change his “destructive” habits until he began dialysis. The patient thought one or two treatments would be the cure. The patient soon learned from his doctor that if he wanted to live longer, he would need to make substantial lifestyle changes. It led to advance directive discussions.
Evan Farr, FarrLawFirm.com, says that because physicians fight illness, they need practical educational tools to address fundamental issues concerning death and dying.
Connie Chow, DailyCaring.com, thinks Medicare support is a step in the right direction. An excellent book is Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Written by Atul Gawande, a surgeon and public health researcher, it illustrates doctors’ reluctance to stop treatment even in terminal cases and their avoidance of discussions about likely outcomes.
Carol Marak is the editor at SeniorCare.com. She earned a Certificate in the Fundamentals of Gerontology from the University of California, Davis. Contact Carol at Carol@SeniorCare.com.