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Closure.org Blog

Have you ever heard a doctor say, “I don’t have a crystal ball”?

By Jonathan Weinkle, MD

The supposed impossibility of predicting what will happen to a patient is one of the major reasons that doctors and nurses shy away from talking about prognosis with patients (see the "Prognosis" module in the "Closure 101" section of this website).

Perhaps part of the reason that patients and families do not access hospice services until near the very end of life (median hospice stay in the US is 18 days from enrollment to death) is because the getting Medicare to cover hospice care requires doctors to have a crystal ball after all. A physician must certify that a patient has a prognosis of 6 months or less if the illness were to run its normal course. Even using the "surprise test" (i.e. "Would you be surprised if this patient died in the next six months?"), physicians are very hesitant about making this prediction. Either they don't wish to do so in the presence of the family (lest they be seen as "giving up," "losing hope," or simply frightening the family), or they don't wish to put on paper a prediction that might, Heaven forbid, be wrong.

Closure came into being with the lofty goal of becoming a "social movement" with a goal of changing expectations for end-of-life. The change we were seeking was that patients and families could comfortably expect that the care they received at end-of-life would be of the highest quality and consistent with the most evidence-based standards available.

In that vein, there now seems to be a movement afoot to rethink the arbitrary 6-month hospice requirement, in order to excuse doctors from doing something they admit they're lousy at (predicting the future) and get back to the core skills of their profession – relieving suffering and caring for patients in the way that best suits that patient. I have read one too many non-fiction accounts by physician-writers of "The patient who failed hospice." People don't "fail" hospice – but hospice occasionally fails them when it sets arbitrary requirements for who can use it and who can't. Hospice providers become, ironically, victims of their own success when someone survives their 180 days peaceful, comfortable, and still kicking, and the next kick is the one that kicks the patient off the services that have been providing them quality of life for half a year.

Time to review the evidence and revise the rules, I think.

Written by robots= on December 13th, 2012 at
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