For one month this spring, my job as a senior resident in a large teaching hospital entailed racing around the hospital, managing patients who had rapidly become sicker; I wore running shoes every day. I also led every code, orchestrating a team of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and pharmacists in an effort to resuscitate patients after their hearts had stopped. Some of the very sick patients under my care had do-not-resuscitate orders, but most didn’t. For them, my team and I provided whatever treatments we could.
One night, a colleague asked me to see Mr. S, a middle-aged patient with worrisome vital signs.
Arriving at his bedside, my colleague, Dave, and I saw a sluggish, pale man — he’d been in the hospital for almost a month with life-threatening infections. He answered my questions with brief but cogent statements until he suddenly stopped moving, his eyes staring blankly at the wall. I felt for a pulse. There wasn’t one.
“Call a code blue,” I said as calmly as I could, referring to the all-hands-on-deck alert that a patient’s heart had stopped. Dave began doing chest compressions, pressing rhythmically and firmly on Mr. S’s chest, taking the place of the heart in circulating blood throughout his body. I stood at the foot of the bed as the resuscitation team rushed in. A breathing tube wouldn’t pass down Mr. S’s windpipe, so a surgeon performed a cricothyrotomy, cutting a hole in the throat so we could insert a tube to help him breathe. As we paused chest compressions to check for a pulse, 15 wide-eyed faces looked to me to tell them what to do next. Although most in attendance had been involved in attempts to resuscitate patients before, the adrenaline-fueled brutality universal to codes is nearly impossible to get used to. Mr. S’s heart still wasn’t pumping, so we continued.
A few moments later, his arms flailed, thanks to the blood the chest compressions were sending to his brain and the rest of his body. The intern who had taken over for Dave paused in alarm. Another resident reassured her this simply meant her compressions were strong, and urged her to continue pushing.
After more compressions and injections of medicines to bring up the blood pressure and restart the heart, Mr. S’s began to beat faintly. Stable for the moment, we moved him to the intensive care unit. His prognosis was grave, so his family opted against future resuscitations. Later that day, his heart stopped again — that time forever.
We may have revived Mr. S, at least for a few hours, but I’m not sure we really helped him. Were our actions what he truly wanted?
Most people whose hearts suddenly stop don’t survive. Of the more than 200,000 Americans every year who go into cardiac arrest in the hospital, only about one-quarter make it out of the hospital alive. Of those, nearly 30 percent are seriously disabled.
Doctors often don’t adequately convey these grim outcomes; many patients remain falsely optimistic, tending to overestimate their chances of surviving a cardiac arrest. And few people understand what the resuscitation process truly entails, and how these efforts often lead to a painful, undignified death. Recent research also shows that patients and caregivers tend not to be on the same page when it comes to what level of disability or pain might be acceptable to a patient in the future, including after a code.
There’s got to be a way to close these gaps.
The solution starts with a conversation between doctors and their patients about what the end of life might look like. In an effort to make these discussions more common, Medicare now allows doctors to count such discussions, known as advance care planning, as a topic worthy of a doctor’s visit — and of reimbursement under a new billing code — if patients are open to it. Since this change took effect Jan. 1, 2016, nearly 575,000 patients and 23,000 providers have participated in such reimbursed conversations. Of course, there’s plenty of room for improvement: Although that’s almost twice as many conversations as predicted by the American Medical Association, it’s only 1 percent of all people enrolled in Medicare.
It may seem ridiculous to need to pay doctors to have these conversations. Yet given the myriad demands on doctors’ time, making this conversation reimbursable puts it on equal footing with measuring blood pressure, discussing an irregular heartbeat, and other topics long considered vital parts of a doctor visit. These conversations aren’t simply something that are nice to do; they are an incredibly important part of the way patients live and die.
Yet this initiative faces opposition by lawmakers whose fundamental misunderstanding of advance care planning risks seriously harming patients. One such example is the dangerously misnamed Protecting Life Until Natural Death Act, proposed by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) this past January. The bill calls for excluding end-of-life discussions from Medicare reimbursement, discouraging doctors from having these important conversations. That’s a problem because in the American medical system, the default position is to do everything possible to revive a patient unless he or she requests otherwise. And in reality, there’s nothing natural about a death prolonged by painful chest compressions, endless needle sticks, and a breathing tube forced down the throat, especially when such efforts are usually futile. In fact, some experts have proposed changing the term “do not resuscitate” to “allow natural death” to better reflect the realities of end-of-life care.
There’s no doubt heroic measures save some lives — but they aren’t what everyone wants. That’s why end-of-life discussions are essential for protecting patients and empowering them to make clear, well-informed decisions that let doctors do right by them. It’s absolutely vital that we keep these conversations going.
Allison Bond, M.D., is a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital.