Sunday, July 20, 2014

How to Tell Someone She is Dying

There is an interesting article with the above title in “The New Yorker” about doctor-patient relationships. It concerns how to get a patient who is in denial or uncomfortable with a certain treatment, in this case chemotherapy, to consider the alternatives.  As a cancer patient, I want to feel in control of my options. Not being a medical expert, I don’t know the pros and cons of different treatments.  I need to rely on my doctors to give me their opinion on what I should do but also the rationale for that course of action.  This was not always the way patients were treated. The article states in part:

“As recently as the nineteen-seventies, medical decision-making in the United States was largely a doctor-knows-best endeavor. Physicians dictated clinical care without feeling compelled to tell patients about their treatment alternatives. Frequently, in fact, they did not even inform patients of their diagnoses.

Medical practice has since undergone a paradigm shift. Physicians now recognize that patients not only have both the right to information but also the right to refuse medical care. Yet doctors are rarely taught how to partner effectively with patients in making important medical decisions. There is a need for a balance between helping patients make wise choices and respecting their rights to refuse medical interventions.

This raises a fundamental question about the doctor-patient relationship: Is modern medical practice all about 'patient knows best’?  Or do physicians still need, on occasion, to cajole their patients into doing the right thing?

Most well-trained physicians believe that it would be a dereliction of their duties to act merely as information providers, standing aside while patients make bad decisions. Experience provides them with an important perspective to guide treatment decisions. Yet a purely medical perspective can cause physicians to lose themselves in details and lose sight of the more human element of patient care such as whether the chemotherapy that shrank the tumor would improve the patient’s quality of life.”

Only a patient can determine the balance they prefer between the quantity and quality of life they want.  As cancer treatment becomes more advanced, options can become less clear in their ability to produce a high quality life.  I would hope that my doctor would understand my preferences and give me the best option to keep my quality of life - even if that means no treatment or palliative care instead of intensive medical therapies that would cause harm.

The link to the article is below: