Engage with Grace: Talking About the Hard Stuff

When I practiced oncology, I relished time talking with patients and their loved ones about tough decisions – when an indolent condition accelerated and it seemed time to bite the bullet and start treatment, or when a cancer stopped responding to treatment and it seemed right to shift gears and, perhaps, emphasize palliation instead of more chemo, and at every value-loaded decision checkpoint in between.

These conversations weren’t easy; speaking of levels of care, palliation and end-of-life wishes are discussions that many doctors, even oncologists, still avoid.

Health Care Costs, Communication and Informed Choices

For those of you who’ve been asleep for the past year: the health care costs conundrum remains unsolved. Our annual medical bills run in the neighborhood of $2.4 trillion and that number’s heading up. Reform, even in its watered-down, reddened form, has stalled.

Despite so much unending review of medical expenses – attributed variously to an unfit, aging population, expensive new cancer drugs, innovative procedures, insurance companies and big Pharma – there’s been surprisingly little consideration for patients’ preferences. What’s missing is a solid discussion of the type and extent of treatments people would want if they were sufficiently informed of their medical options and circumstances.

Maybe, if doctors would ask their adult patients how much care they really want, the price of health care would go down. That’s because many patients would choose less, at least in the way of technology, than their doctors prescribe. And more care.

What I’m talking about is the opposite of rationing. It’s about choosing.

How to Avoid Death in the ICU

It was sometime in April, 1988. I was putting a line in an old man with end-stage kidney disease, cancer (maybe), heart failure, bacteria in his blood and no consciousness. Prince was on the radio, loud, by his bedside. If you could call it that – the uncomfortable, curtained compartment didn’t seem like a good place for resting.

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