Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Americans, death, and the health care system

This short commentary touches on one of the major problems that we have in the health care system: unrealistic expectations. Really, having great expectations is something that is almost quintessentially American. We generally aren't good at waiting for things or taking "no" for an answer. Health care is no different.

I sometimes get the impression that patients think we (physicians) can do just about anything for them, reverse any condition, and make them feel like brand new. In clinic, if you tell a patient that their condition may not improve, or that there isn't much we can do to help them, they almost always look at you like you're crazy. People tend to have very unrealistic expectations as to what we are capable of.

This especially becomes obvious at the end of life. As patients get closer and closer to death, some people still refuse to believe that we can't completely reverse everything. Even if you tell them as much, its almost as if they don't understand what they are being told. Their baseline perception of the world can be very mixed-up too. To some people, withdrawing care, IE letting the natural course of things proceed, is tantamount to killing the patient. Ceaseless medical intervention for some people is the natural course of things.

Its really very bizarre to me sometimes. Especially compared to other industrialized nations, America is a very religious place. Many if not most Americans profess strong belief in God. And yet, the inability of many people to accept death as a natural course of things, as a legitimate outcome, is just something I still never ceased to be amazed by. South Park made fun of the Terry Schiavo case years ago, but they also were on point in their underlying message. In that case, the Republicans were screaming that we were playing God by removing the feeding tube. Well, no - actually, we were playing God when we put the feeding tube in.

End of life care is enormously expensive. Arranging panels to help patients decide what their end-of-life objectives were was one of Obamacare's greatest pushes. It had the potential to save money AND to improve patient's quality of life (I don't consider prolongued and pointless hospital stays to be improvements in quality of life). Unfortunately, the idea was demagogued to death by members of the opposition political party. Very frustrating, but its something we need to start thinking about as a nation.

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