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At the End of Life, What Would Doctors Do?

By Dr. Ira Byock, New York Times, 06/30/2016

Americans have long been chided as the only people on earth who believe death is optional. But the quip is losing its premise. A recent profusion of personal narratives, best-selling books and social entrepreneurs’ projects suggest that, as a culture, we are finally starting to come to terms with our mortality. Nationally, the Conversation Project is engaging people to discuss their wishes for end-of-life care. Death Cafes and Death Over Dinner events are popping up across the country, reflecting an appetite for exploring these matters. So too, the Dinner Party and the Kitchen Widow are using meals as a communal space to explore life after loss.

Admittedly, contemplating mortality is not (yet) a national strong suit. That’s why these cultural stirrings are so significant. At a minimum, our heightened awareness and willingness to talk about illness, dying, caregiving and grieving will lead to much better end-of-life care. However, the impact on American culture needn’t stop there. Like individuals who grow wiser with age, collectively, in turning toward death, we stand to learn a lot about living.

Doctors can be valuable guides in this process. In matters of illness, people are fascinated by the question, what would doctors do? Consider the social phenomenon of Dr. Ken Murray’s online essay, “How Doctors Die.” Dr. Murray wrote that doctors he knew tended to die differently than most people, often eschewing the same late-stage treatments they prescribed for patients. The article went viral, being read by millions, and reprinted in multiple languages in magazines, newspapers and websites across the globe.

Dr. Murray’s observation even engendered studies of doctors’ preferences for care near the end of life. So far, results are mixed. In a Stanford study, 88 percent of responding physicians said they would avoid invasive procedures and life-prolonging machines. But a newly released comparative study of Medicare recipients, as well as a longitudinal study and separate analysis of Medicare datapublished in January, suggest that the actual differences between end-of-life treatments that doctors and nondoctors receive are slight. Perhaps like nearly everyone else, when life is fleeting, physicians find it difficult to follow their previous wishes to avoid aggressive life-prolonging treatments.

For what it’s worth, the terminally ill colleagues I’ve known, including those I’ve been privileged to care for, have usually been willing to use medical treatments aplenty as long as life was worth living, and took great pains to avoid medicalizing their waning days. In any event, the public’s interest in the medical treatments that doctors choose must not be allowed to reinforce our culture’s tendency to see dying solely through medical lenses. More to the point is the question, how do dying doctors live?

What dying doctors do with their time and limited energy, and what they say, are deeply personal, sometimes raw and often tender. Like everyone else, doctors experience pain and suffering – yet many speak of a deepening moment-to-moment sense of life and connection to the people who matter most.

Read Dr. Ira Byock’s full article in The New York Times.

Ira Byock, a palliative care physician, is founder and chief medical officer of the Providence Institute for Human Caring in Torrance, Calif. His books include “Dying Well” and “The Best Care Possible.”