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Today is National Healthcare Decisions Day. The day was created as “an initiative to encourage patients to express their wishes regarding healthcare and for providers and facilities to respect those wishes, whatever they may be.” Much of what will be going on today at various outreach programs will be focused on the first part of this initiative: educating the public on the importance of advance care planning.  I’d like to take a second though and pose the following question to our audience:

Should the failure to follow end-of-life preferences be considered a medical error?

This question is derived from a recent JAMA Internal Medicine editorial by GeriPal contributors Theresa Allison and Rebecca Sudore.  In it they make a persuasive argument that the disregard of patients’ preferences is indeed a medical error.  Here is an excerpt:

“Discussions about goals of care and code status constitute a medical procedure every bit as important to patient safety as a central line placement or a surgical procedure. Much as we have developed systems to improve patient safety in surgical procedures, we need to develop systematic approaches to discussing patient values and goals of care.”

The Importance of this Question on National Healthcare Decisions Day

To understand the importance of this question, one needs to only turn to the study that accompanies the editorial by Allison and Sudore.  Thestudy, conducted by Heyland and colleagues, involving 278 patients and 255 family members in 12 Canadian hospitals.  To be included, patients needed to be age 80 years or older and have either advanced pulmonary, cardiac, or liver disease, or metastatic cancer, or be to be someone whose death within the next 6 months would not be a surprise to any member of his or her care team.

Of these elderly patients who were at high risk of dying in the next 6 months, 76% reported that they thought about what kind of life-sustaining
treatments they would or wouldn’t want prior to hospitalization.  And what did they want?

  • Few (12%) wanted aggressive use of heroic measures and artificial life-sustaining treatments, including CPR with a goal of life prolongation
  • A little more (18%) wanted “Full medical care” but no CPR in the event their heart or breathing stopped
  • Most (31%) would want their care either focused on 1) comfort if their health deteriorated including avoiding CPR and other life-sustaining technologies, 2) trying to fix problems but if not getting better, switch to focusing comfort even if it hastens death

The good news is that most individuals discussed their preferences with someone (88%).  The bad news is that most patients just talked to their family members about these wishes.  Only 30% had talked to their family physician, and only about half (55%) had talked to any member of their health care team.

The other good news is that nearly half of patients (48%) reported having completed
a written advance care plan, and 73.3% had documented who they would like to be their surrogate
decision maker.  The other bad news though is that only one in four (25%) of these patients were asked about these prior discussions or written documents on admission to the

The most unfortunate finding of this study was that more than two-thirds of patients’ preferences were either not documented at all or documented incorrectly in the medical record.  When the authors of the study looked at the 199 patients who expressed a preference for care and for whom a written goals-of-care order was present in the patient’s records, they found:

  • only a 30% agreement between patients’ expressed preferences and the documented goals-of-care order in the medical record
  • 28.1% of patients (56 of 199) preferred comfort
    measures only, but this preference was documented
    in only 4.5% (9 of 199) of stated goals (Figure 2A).

So, the question I have for you on this National Healthcare Decisions Day is whether you agree with Drs Allison and Sudore that this failure to document end-of-life preferences should be considered a medical error?

by: Eric Widera (@ewidera)

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Yes.

    My indoctrination must be really complete, since I cannot fathom how the answer could be "no".

  2. When was the last time you saw or heard of someone doing an incident report on a failure to respect or ask about end-of-life preferences?

  3. Most definitely a serious medical error and to my observation the cause of much resulting harm; these interventions often start a cascade of events and further interventions which are deleterious.

  4. If States complied with the provisions of the 1991 PSDA and if the federal government clarified the provisions of the PSDA as to BOTH the choice to die by electing to refuse life-extending treatments and the right to live by accepting life-extending treatments, of course, it would be a serious LEGAL error and violation of patients rights if either CHOICE were violated.

    You must know that Medicare already doesn't reimburse physicians/hospitals for medical errors and non-beneficial overtreatments.

  5. Are you aware that The American Bar Association (ABA) has already offered their opinion to Congress/Medicare that the Patient Self Determination Act of 1991 (PSDA) does NOT have to be clarified and that CMS Medicare/Medicaid do NOT have to reimburse for treatments that are in violation of patients' advanced directive made under the provisions of the PSDA and state laws? It would be understood, of course, that the hospitals/physicians would have to eat the costs and the patients couldn't be billed.

    Wouldn't the problem of overtreatment for profit be solved if all physicians were mandated to SEEK consent from elderly/disabled patients with late stage disease for either curative care or palliative care/transition to hospice?

    If the provision of palliative care/hospice required informed consent from patients to forfeit their rights to life-extending and/or life-saving treatments to be eligible for palliative care/Hospice, would this be legal and constitutional under the PSDA and existing law?

    Isn't this why physicians (especially the specialists) are often NOT seeking informed consent for one standard of care or the other? Isn't this why unilateral covert and overt DNRs become the solution to lack of reimbursement from Medicare and the private insurers?

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