Americans are treated, and overtreated, to death | Lindsey Tanner | 06/28/10

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Americans increasingly are treated to death, spending more time in hospitals in their final days, trying last-ditch treatments that often buy only weeks of time, and racking up bills that have made medical care a leading cause of bankruptcies.

The doctors finally let Rosaria Vandenberg go home.

For the first time in months, she was able to touch her 2-year-old daughter who had been afraid of the tubes and machines in the hospital. The little girl climbed up onto her mother's bed, surrounded by family photos, toys and the comfort of home. They shared one last tender moment together before Vandenberg slipped back into unconsciousness.

Vandenberg, 32, died the next day.

That precious time at home could have come sooner if the family had known how to talk about alternatives to aggressive treatment, said Vandenberg's sister-in-law, Alexandra Drane.

Instead, Vandenberg, a pharmacist in Franklin, Mass., had endured two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation for an incurable brain tumor before she died in July 2004.

"We would have had a very different discussion about that second surgery and chemotherapy. We might have just taken her home and stuck her in a beautiful chair outside under the sun and let her gorgeous little daughter play around her -- not just torture her" in the hospital, Drane said.

Americans increasingly are treated to death, spending more time in hospitals in their final days, trying last-ditch treatments that often buy only weeks of time, and racking up bills that have made medical care a leading cause of bankruptcies.

More than 80 percent of people who die in the United States have a long, progressive illness such as cancer, heart failure or Alzheimer's disease.

More than 80 percent of such patients say they want to avoid hospitalization and intensive care when they are dying, according to the Dartmouth Atlas Project, which tracks health care trends.

Yet the numbers show that's not what is happening:

_The average time spent in hospice and palliative care, which stresses comfort and quality of life once an illness is incurable, is falling because people are starting it too late. In 2008, one-third of people who received hospice care had it for a week or less, says the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

_Hospitalizations during the last six months of life are rising: from 1,302 per 1,000 Medicare recipients in 1996 to 1,441 in 2005, Dartmouth reports. Treating chronic illness in the last two years of life gobbles up nearly one-third of all Medicare dollars.

"People are actually now sicker as they die," and some find that treatments become a greater burden than the illness was, said Dr. Ira Byock, director of palliative care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Families may push for treatment, but "there are worse things than having someone you love die," he said.

Gail Sheehy, author of the "Passages" books, learned that as her husband, New York magazine founder Clay Felker, spent 17 years fighting various cancers. On New Year's Day 2007, they waited eight hours in an emergency room for yet another CT scan until Felker looked at her and said, "No more hospitals."

"I just put a cover over him and wheeled him out of there with needles still in his arms," Sheehy said.

Then she called Dr. R. Sean Morrison, president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and a doctor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

"Nobody had really sat down with them about what his choices are and what the options were," said Morrison, who became his doctor.

About a year later, Felker withdrew his own feeding tube, and "it enabled us to go out and have a wonderful evening at a jazz club two nights before he died" in July 2008, Sheehy said.

Doctors can't predict how soon a patient will die, but they usually know when an illness has become incurable. Even then, many of them practice "exhaustion medicine" -- treating until there are no more options left to try, said Dr. Martha Twaddle, chief medical officer of Midwest Palliative & Hospice Care Center in suburban Chicago.

A stunning number of cancer patients get aggressive care in the last days of their lives, she noted. One large study of Medicare records found that nearly 12 percent of cancer patients who died in 1999 received chemo in the last two weeks of life, up from nearly 10 percent in 1993.

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2 Comments | Leave a comment


That's why we loved our midwife - informed consent. First you get informed and then you consent to a course of action.

Joyfully we had twins, sadly that meant that we got handed over to an OB (from hell) when an ultrasound was done late in the 2nd trimester. There was no information - just terrorizing - one bomb shell after another - saying that the birth canal was shortening (normal) they were growth retarded - that they'd never make it to 32 weeks .... To quote her "your meetings with me will not be 'chatty' like those with the midwife". She was ohhh so right! Our breath of fresh air was when we met a perinatologist after we rejected injection of the drugs to make the lungs mature early (and force an early c-section) and when our OB went on vacation and we met another OB. Given that my wife has a PHD in bio-chem and used to research, we were racked - every pronouncement of doom from the OB took days of research to refute or put into context and within a month we didn't know who or what to trust any more. Nearly a decade later we hear that women still suffer under her "care".

A family member suffering thru cancer did get some information and refused the chemo and lived an amazing two years past the initial diagnosis. The surgeries were a success until the cancer hit bone but the initial prognosis was only a few months of life.

Sadly - a doctor has two tools - their knife and drugs and they wield them both - to their profit. Their is no advantage to them telling you about options which would cost them work and profit.

That's the beauty of the USA health un-care system.

Often a change in diet can do so much, without risk - but very few advocate it.


A pattern has been observed regarding doctors' strikes: when they go on strike, mortality stays level or decreases.

This was reported in Social Science & Medicine
Volume 67, Issue 11, December 2008, Pages 1784-1788.

The researchers reviewed death rates during doctor strikes around the world between 1976 and 2003. The strikes lasted between nine days and seventeen weeks.

ALL reported that mortality either stayed the same or decreased during, and in some cases, after the strike.

Some call this a paradox. Others call it an eye-opener!

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