In this episode Dr. Karen Wyatt discusses the fact that according to the Nebraska End-of-Life Survey, even though 70% of patients surveyed want their doctors to discuss their end-of-life options but only 21% of them have actually had those conversations.
In addition, while 86% of doctors agree that they themselves would enroll in hospice if terminally ill, only 27% of them are comfortable discussing hospice as an option with terminally ill patients.
There is a huge disconnect between what patients want from their doctor and what they receive and also what doctors would do for themselves at the end-of-life and what they do for their patients.
Today’s conversation looks at reasons for this disconnect to point the way toward changes that are needed in how medicine approaches the end of life. Here are some of the attitudes and mindsets that make it difficult for some doctors to address death and dying, based on conversations between Dr. Wyatt and her colleagues:
- “It’s not my job. My passion is for saving lives.” Ideally doctors must maintain their passion for life, but must also make room for death, since every patient will ultimately die. Doctors need to cultivate a view of life that includes the reality of death.
- “I don’t have enough time and the end of life is less important than other issues I’m expected to discuss with patients.” The average primary care visit with an elderly patient last 15.7 minutes and covers 6 topics. Doctors need to view the end of life as the final stage of development and give it the same attention as the other stages of development.
- “Death represents failure.” While death in general is a natural process and not a failure, for doctors the death of a patient can be a devastating experience, especially if it is unexpected. Doctors carry an enormous burden of responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their patients and mistakes can lead to complications and death. For doctors it is difficult to carry both responsibilities: to preserve life and promote health while also honoring death in its place.
- “I don’t want to take away my patient’s hope.” Many doctors recognize that optimism and positivity are essential for a patient’s survival and wellbeing. But they view curative treatments as the source of that hope while failing to recognize that hope has many different meanings for patients. They promote ongoing treatment in order to keep hope alive while failing to offer emotional and spiritual support that can foster hope even in the face of death.
By recognizing the obstacles that keep doctors from engaging in end-of-life interactions with patients we can help overcome them over time. It’s important to have compassion for everyone involved as we try to move forward and evolve care at the end of life in our society.
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