In the United States, death is a taboo subject for many, and most people avoid preparing for it until late in their own lives, and some not even then. Many attend to last wills and testaments, estate planning, and taxes, but less than 15% of the adult population is prepared to make advance decisions about restrictions on life-supporting measures. Yet surveys consistently show a strong preference for a dignified, comfortable, and peaceful death at home and a strong wish to avoid dying in a hospital, particularly in an ICU.
The quandary about what to do is particularly vexing when it concerns a surgical patient who sought relief from symptoms, improved functional-ity, and a better quality of life, but who ends up with a bad outcome requiring ongoing life-supporting measures with little prospect of achieving the goals of the operation.
A substantial number of physicians cannot discuss such difficult situations in a humane, non-adversarial manner or deal with the anger, despair, and other emotions of family members and friends whose expectations have not been met. Good com-munication skills are the essential foundation. Communications with the family, friends, and all caregivers must be timely, consistent (having only one physician serve as the spokesman has great advantages), accurate, clear to laypersons, advisory without being dictatorial, focused on what is best for the patient, and aligned with the patient’s wishes. A gradual stepwise approach over time allows family members and friends time to digest the information; get beyond their normal, initial reactions to the bad news; and make the difficult decision to withdraw intensive support.
Finally, it is important to recognize two ethi-cal principles that are relevant here. The first is the principle of double effect. All medical interventions have potential benefits as well as burdens and risks. If the doses of morphine or sedative drug required to relieve pain and agitation result in unintended side effects, we accept them, even if the result is death. Thisis not euthanasia. The second principle is that with-drawal of medical therapies and interventions is no different from withholding them: both may be done to respect the patient’s autonomy. There is a broad religious consensus that heroic measures are not mandated to support a heartbeat at the end of life.
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