Samuel Shem, House of God (Quoting the Fat Man’s Laws)

On rounds a while back in the hospital, we had a patient who had come from ICU and was being cared for by our team. He was a little older than our average patient (he was in his mid 80s), a little sicker (his kidneys and liver were failing), and a lot scared (I don’t want to die, doc. I want to feel better. I want to go back to how I was. Don’t let me die). He was getting a lot of blood draws, had a catheter in, and was getting IV fluids and a strong diuretic. Thanks to “big data” we now have calculators that we can plug in certain data and determine the likelihood of the patient being alive at 3 months, 6 months, and a year. In this patients case, there was a 50% chance that he would be alive in 3 months. As much as I wanted to, I was not ever going to be able to put him back together. I was also sure that he would have at least one or maybe two more trips to the ICU before he died. The sad thing is, those trips to the ICU might just cause him to die sooner.

Americans have believed that the US Healthcare system is the best in the world despite the fact that we consistently rank last among wealthy countries in almost every category measured. We are the most expensive in the world, spending twice what the next highest country spends.. It appears, that we have mistaken excess for quality. It also appears that we physicians are complicit in selling this belief to the public.

I often have patients say to me “do everything.” Often, they make that statement as the end of life is rapidly approaching. In this country, everything comes with a steep price-tag. Part of that price is monetary, For example we spend $1.25 billion in Medicare recipients for cancer care with 25% of that occurring in the last month of life. Part of that price is in shorter life-spans (from the Dartmouth Atlas):

Ironically, research has found that in patients with chronic illnesses, more aggressive interventions result in shorter life expectancy, probably because of the risks associated with hospitalization. This indicates that the best strategy for extending the life of people with chronic illness is to focus on those activities that provide a survival benefit – better control of blood pressure for people with diabetes, for example – rather than on “heroic” end-of-life care.

It turns out that the Fat Man was right. For a lot of people, symptom management (What would you like to be able to do?) with the reduction of aggressive care actually leads to a longer, better life.

What can you do? Take advantage of being well and determine what you would like others to do for you when you are sick. The CDC has some good information on advanced care planning. Only 20% of Americans have done so. If you suffer from chronic illness, have a conversation with your physician about what your expectations are regarding your last year. Only 25% of physicians report having such a conversation. Limit your care seeking behavior to what really is necessary. One in three Americans who die have seen over 10 physicians in the last 6 months and yet they still died (and perhaps sooner than they might have). When it is clear that a cure is not possible, seek symptom relief. Programs providing palliative care improve length and quality of life. In Alabama, only 20% of hospitals have such programs. Makes it hard to follow the Fat Man’s advice.