Ethicist-Assisted Suicide

DrRich | February 10th, 2011 - 11:36 am

Podcast:

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This is the third in a series of articles on End-of-Life Care and Covert Rationing.  The first two articles can be found here and here.
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In his previous post, DrRich attempted to satirize the lame attempts of certain payers to “inform” certain of their “covered lives” that, among all the wonderful options available to them under their truly comprehensive health plans, the medical service of physician-assisted suicide would be compassionately offered and cheerfully paid for. DrRich even offered, thoughtfully as usual, some free though invaluable advice to payers on how they ought to go about marketing assisted suicide as a cost-saving strategy, and to do so in a far more sensitive and less ham-fisted way than they have managed so far.

If the mark of good satire is that at least some readers will have difficulty discerning whether the satirist is serious or not, then DrRich is feeling genuinely Jonathan Swiftian today.  For some of his readers (one of whom e-mailed, “I can’t believe what I just read. This is sick.”) have taken his modest proposal for selling assisted suicide at face value.  This is not the first time DrRich has made unfortunate impressions upon readers through his (possibly inept) use of irony. Sadly, it almost certainly will not be the last.

But assisted suicide being such an important and ethically charged topic, DrRich feels obligated to clear things up once and for all. So what follows is DrRich’s honest assessment of the advisability of physician-assisted suicide, in which he will attempt to forgo entirely any satire or irony (though he admits to having great difficulty in controlling his sarcasm).

DrRich believes that physician-assisted suicide is a very, very bad idea.  He has two major reasons for this belief.  On a purely practical realm, embracing and systematizing physician-assisted suicide under any healthcare system that is actively engaged in rationing (whether overtly or covertly) will almost surely lead to some terrible abuses of the practice. In this regard you can either use your imagination, or read the history of Europe in the first half of the 20th century.

His second objection to physician-assisted suicide is based on a consideration of ethics. DrRich admits to being on shaky ground here because: a) he is not formally trained in ethics, and b) it appears for all the world that those who are formally trained in ethics have universally concluded that physician-assisted suicide is perfectly OK in every way.

Debating with modern medical ethicists, at least if you are merely a layperson, is mostly a losing proposition.  This is not because ethicists are intellectually (or even ethically) superior, but rather because they are adept in couching their arguments in arcane twists of logic and webs of jargon that make their arguments difficult if not impossible for the uninitiated to follow.  This technique, of course, places novices like DrRich in the position of having little choice but to accept the ethical bottom line without really understanding how the bottom line was reached. It reduces medical ethicists to a priesthood, and medical ethics to received knowledge.

But DrRich maintains that advancing unintelligible ethical arguments is, well, unethical.

So DrRich will now present his understanding of the chain of logic by which modern ethicists justify physician-assisted suicide – and its close cousin, euthanasia.  (If any of you actual ethicists out there object to this analysis, and can explain where DrRich is wrong in clear language, DrRich will be all ears. Absent the clear language, though, you can pound salt.)

Modern ethicists argue as follows:

Point 1: Our society has already decided that the autonomy of the individual patient is the overriding ethical consideration in making end-of-life decisions. We formalized this determination when we decided – by overwhelming consensus – that an individual has a right to refuse medical treatment even if that treatment is very likely to save their life. Therefore, individual autonomy is the universally agreed-upon controlling ethical precept.

And in adopting this controlling precept, we have already firmly decided that passive euthanasia – allowing nature to take its course by withholding treatment at the request of the patient – is ethical.

Point 2: There is no ethical distinction between passive euthanasia and active euthanasia. That is, whether we let death occur by withholding effective medical care, or by actually doing something to help death along a bit, we’re taking an action that hastens death either way. Ethically, both of these actions are equivalent. So, once we decide that individual autonomy is the overriding concern, we must also allow for active euthanasia when a patient wishes it.

Point 3: Once active euthanasia is deemed ethical, there can be no further ethical objection to the lesser act of physician-assisted suicide.  If it is ethical for a doctor him/herself to bring on the death of a patient who requests it, there can be no objection to doctors preparing the suicide machine and handing the patient the switch.

The striking thing here (to DrRich, at least) is that in establishing the ethical case for physician-assisted suicide, we necessarily also establish – as a veritable pre-condition – the ethical case for physician-provided euthanasia. Whether the patient says, “Help me to take my own life,” or “Take my life for me,” modern medical ethics supports the physician who replies, “Roll up your sleeve.”

For those who don’t see a problem with this, DrRich refers you to the Dutch system, where, in full accordance with modern medical ethics, the rules permit both physician-assisted suicide and active euthanasia for patients who request it. Reports on the results of the Dutch system (reports which both sides have used to bolster their respective opinions on either the glories or the travesties of such a system) do point out one striking finding – hundreds of times each year, acts of *involuntary* euthanasia are occurring. That is, patients are being killed under the Dutch healthcare system at the hands of their doctors, without their explicit permission. All these patients, it is claimed, are being euthanized for entirely humane reasons.

What do our friends the medical ethicists have to say about such involuntary euthanasia? Well, it turns out that it’s OK with many if not most of them. Ethicists don’t like to tell us that their chain of logic doesn’t end with Point 3.  But once we make the principle of individual autonomy the overriding consideration in determining end-of-life ethical issues, the same chain of logic takes us directly to Point 4.

Point 4: Since honoring the ethical precept of individual autonomy makes voluntary euthanasia available for patients with intractable suffering, it would be unethical to withhold the same benefit from suffering patients who are too incapacitated to give their permission. Their incapacity should not restrict them from a good that is available to others, for to do so would be discriminatory and inhumane. To cure this problem, the boon of active euthanasia can and must be performed, even without the patient’s explicit permission, in incapacitated patients whom “reasonable people” would agree are suffering too much. Therefore, involuntary active euthanasia is also ethical.

This conclusion, of course, leaves us in a place where others (i.e., “reasonable people,” like doctors or other agents of the Central Authority) can decide for an individual what constitutes intractable suffering, and further, can decide when such an individual is simply too incompetent to know that euthanasia is the best thing for them. Some of you, of course (hello, ethicists!) think this is just a fine idea. Most apologists for the Dutch system apparently do.

But DrRich maintains that under our system of covert healthcare rationing, where doctors are under extreme pressure to do the bidding of the third party payers (private insurers and the government) who determine their professional viability, and where the payers are under extreme pressure to reduce cost, and have already displayed in numerous ways their willingness to permit suffering and death among their subscribers in order to do so, then opening the door for physician-assisted suicide (let alone physician-administered euthanasia, whether the patient requests it or not), would inevitably lead to some nasty abuses, and would ultimately serve to undermine our civil society. DrRich is too politically correct to use the “other” N-word, but he will take this opportunity to remind his readers that such a thing has already happened, in what recently had been perhaps the world’s most cultured and educated society, within the memory of millions of living people.

DrRich believes that the principle of individual autonomy is vitally important, and indeed it is the foundation of American culture. However, no single ethical principle, no matter how important, can be allowed to overrule all other ethical principles in all other circumstances.  By nature, ethical precepts are often in conflict, creating what is called an ethical dilemma. And (DrRich humbly submits) it is supposed to be the job of ethicists to help us work through those ethical dilemmas, to find the right balance between competing principles, and not simply declare that no dilemma actually exists, because Ethical Precept A is the only one we need to pay attention to.

Individual autonomy is critically important to American culture – and the fact that we must fight to preserve individual autonomy in the face of covert healthcare rationing is indeed the underlying message of this blog – but in no other aspect of our culture do we let it absolutely rule. The autonomy of individuals needs to be checked, and we indeed limit it. This is the fundamental reason that governments are necessary in the first place.

The reason we have laws (supposedly) is to make sure that the behavior of individuals acting in their own interest, especially those who have accrued power (for instance, by accumulating great wealth, by acquiring large weapons, or by becoming heads of state), does not abrogate the natural rights of other individuals. Indeed, most of the political fights we have – between Democrats and Republicans or progressives and conservatives – are to determine where to place those limits, on individuals and on the collective, to best encourage a robust society that honors individual autonomy but that also encourages reasonably equal opportunities for individual fulfillment (i.e., “happiness.”) The main purpose of our public discourse, then, is to find the right balance between the rights and needs of individuals and the rights and needs of society as a whole.

So for ethicists to say, “Individual autonomy is all there is to it, and we have no choice but to follow that principle to wherever it may lead us,” is not only completely irresponsible and dangerous, it also flies in the face of our culture’s history and our everyday experience.  The cost to society not only should but must be taken into account as we consider institutionalizing physician-assisted suicide (let alone voluntary or involuntary euthanasia).  In DrRich’s opinion, ethicists who argue that we need not consider the cost to society in making end-of-life policy have declared themselves unworthy of the title and they ought to be completely ignored.

The cost to our society of institutionalizing and systematizing physician-assisted suicide, especially while we are still covertly rationing healthcare, would be severe and potentially lethal. Within the next decade or two, if things do not change, we likely will be facing cost pressures emanating from our healthcare system that will gravely threaten the survival of our culture. With an existential threat such as this, can we really refrain from slowly transforming the request for assisted suicide from an option to a duty? Can the Central Authority really stay its hand when it has the capability of directing its agents at the bedside to perform euthanasia on unfortunate (and unproductive) citizens who are too “incapacitated” to understand it’s the only thing to do?

DrRich, who opened this post with a promise to avoid irony, apologizes. For when all is said and done, it is deeply ironic that by steadfastly clinging to the ethical precept of individual autonomy at the end of life, within in a paradigm of covert healthcare rationing, we will very likely end up by completely devaluing the inherent worth of individuals.

At least until we solve the fiscal problems within our healthcare system, we simply should not embrace assisted suicide – no matter what we may think of the ethics of the act itself – and we should fight efforts to make it acceptable. The cost to our society would be far too high.

If people want to commit suicide and if medical ethicists insist that assisted suicide is OK, then let the ethicists do the assisting. DrRich has relatively little to say against ethicist-assisted suicide. But, at least as long as covert rationing is the chief operating principle of the American healthcare system, for the love of God keep the doctors out of it.

How to Sell Assisted Suicide

DrRich | February 7th, 2011 - 9:51 am

Podcast:

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This is the second in a series of articles on End-of-Life Care and Covert Rationing.  The first article can be found here.

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In the summer of 2008, the Oregon Health Plan (the Medicaid plan in Oregon) injudiciously sent a letter to lung-cancer patient Barbara Wagner denying coverage for the expensive chemotherapy her doctor had recommended, and offering instead to cover palliative care “including doctor-assisted suicide.”

Despite the fact that there were plenty of distractions at the time (including a presidential election and the world’s economy on the brink of Armageddon), that letter unleashed a firestorm of public outrage. (If you have forgotten the outrage, simply Google the search terms “Barbara Wagner” and “suicide.”) Indeed, the outrage was sufficient to penetrate even the dulled sensibilities of the Oregon Health Plan’s executives. One Jim Sellers, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Plan, admitted to ABC News that “the letter to Wagner was a public relations blunder and something the state is ‘working on.’”

It is clear that the Oregon Health Plan executives were at least a little blindsided by the general reaction to their ham-handed denial letter. Denial letters, after all, are a routine activity, and they always list (as an aid to the patient) services which the third party payer judges to be reasonable alternatives to the denied care. While in this case the denied service which Ms. Wagner sought offered some reasonable hope for prolonged survival, and the service being held out by the Oregon Health Plan as an alternative (to say the least) did not, that’s really not so much different from the content of more “routine” denial letters. The difference is one of degree, and not of substance. So, Oregon Health Plan executives must surely have wondered, “What’s the big deal?”

One must try to be understanding of such insensitivity. It is a fundamental task of health plans – whether run by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance companies – to deliver unpleasant news to people whose lives are at stake, and it is normal (even necessary) for those who are charged with this task either to grow thick skin or to develop the traditional indifference of bureaucrats. It is perfectly predictable that such thick skin or indifference might dull one’s ability to discern subtle differences in degree among various denials of services, subtle differences that might call for more artful phraseologies than those employed in this instance by the Oregon Health Plan. The failure to recognize the need for a more artful denial letter, Mr. Sellers appeared to say, was the only problem in the case of Ms. Wagner. The solution, he therefore suggested, is certainly not a substantive change in any policy, but better public relations.

Those who ran the Oregon Health Plan must have been particularly disheartened to learn that even vocal proponents of physician-assisted suicide immediately began criticizing their ill-considered denial letter. To so blatantly juxtapose the reality of healthcare rationing with the “option” of assisted suicide seriously undermines the chief argument advanced publicly by the end-of-life movement, namely, that assisted suicide is merely an individual autonomy play, and is not in any way a cost-saving tool.*

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*Preserving the ethical precept of individual autonomy is the basis upon which modern utilitarian ethicists always build their defense of doctors ending the lives of their patients, whether it be by physician-assisted suicide, passive euthanasia, active euthanasia, and even involuntary active euthanasia. DrRich will elaborate on this ethical defense in a future posting.
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In other words, whether or not you embrace physician-assisted suicide, everyone seems to agree that offering it up as a covered medical service at the same time you are denying potentially life-prolonging therapy is both insensitive and unseemly.

And so – as a public service to those in the government and the private sector alike who are running healthcare organizations and thus who are (as a matter of course) severely challenged in trying to understand simple human emotions, to patients like Ms. Wagner who may suffer true physical harm by exposure to such institutional callousness, and to the rest of us who simply would appreciate not being confronted so blatantly by the dark abyss that underlies our healthcare system – DrRich offers the Central Authority and private insurers some friendly advice on the right way to sell physician-assisted suicide.

1) Don’t Seem So Anxious.

Sure it’s easy to get excited about physician-assisted suicide. All you need to do is look at your own data. Whether you are trying to make ends meet over at CMS, or running a private health plan, it’s likely that a huge proportion of your spending goes to patients who are in the last year of life. Enticing these end-of-lifers to choose assisted suicide (which you can accomplish in a sufficiently tasteful way for about $100) is such an attractive proposition that it’s indeed become very hard to make yourself appear reasonably circumspect about it. At the very least, if you run an organization like the Oregon Health Plan, where assisted suicide is “available” at no additional cost to patients who choose it, it’s difficult not to push the idea when the opportunity arises. Otherwise how can you be sure the patients will know all their options for end-of-life care?

But doing even that much is a mistake. If you don’t believe that, simply look at the small firestorm the Oregon Health Plan created with their straightforward and helpful “reminder” letter to Ms. Wagner. As a result of the Oregon Health Plan’s inept attempt at informing patients of their options, neighboring states that appeared ready to pass their own assisted-suicide laws immediately had second thoughts about it. It should now be clear even to health plan bureaucrats that seeming overly interested in assisted suicide, or even mentioning the option to patients (at least while simultaneously denying potentially lifesaving therapy) is a very counterproductive idea.

A much more subtle approach is required.

2) Publicly Disavow Any Interest In Assisted Suicide.

Think about Tom Sawyer whitewashing the picket fence. Ole Tom didn’t get all his friends to paint that fence for him by asking for their help, or by overtly trying to sell or cajole them on the idea. Instead, he got them to do the job by pretending he wasn’t the least bit interested in having them do it, by ignoring them altogether, and making himself seem completely absorbed in the delightful task. By the time Tom was done, his friends were begging for a turn, and even giving him wondrous gifts (such as dead cats on a string) to bribe him for a chance to participate.

What you need to do is pretend that encouraging assisted suicide – even if it’s a covered service that patients ought to be made aware of – is the farthest thing from your mind. Instead, you are completely invested in and insistent upon providing full-service end-of-life care, with all the bells and whistles and no holds barred; and – while patients of course have the option to exercise their individual autonomy as they see fit – you take great pride in squeezing every last instant of life out of those elderly, used-up, chronically ill bodies that present themselves in your ICU, no matter what the cost to the patient and family in terms of pain, suffering, humiliation and anguish. It is your mission to stave off death to the bitter end, come what may, and you’re proud of it.

3) Have Somebody Else Push It.

In the meantime, clear the path for agencies and interest groups which are dedicated to the end-of-life movement. There are plenty of them out there. Have them do the selling for you.

Make sure they have access to your patients and patients’ families, especially in the ICU setting. Allow them space for educational displays; provide them some private space where they can talk to interested patients and families; see that hospital social workers are aware of and will enable their activities. In the meantime, make it clear that you do not endorse or encourage their efforts, and indeed wish they would go away, but you are providing such groups with access in your dedicated interest of full transparency, and your commitment to patient choice. If patients choose to avail themselves of such information, you will do nothing to stop them.

4) Make the Advantages To Assisted Suicide Seem Real.

There’s no need for you to talk up the advantages of assisted suicide – let the end-of-life proselytizers do the talking for you. All you have to do is to make their arguments seem accurate. The great part is, that’s just a matter of maintaining business as usual.

The end-of-life zealots will tell patients that assisted suicide is a way of asserting some measure of control over the dying process, of holding on to some level of personal dignity at the very end. So simply make sure your end-of-life care continues robbing patients of any semblance of dignity and control.

They’ll tell patients that assisted suicide will end pain and discomfort and suffering when all hope of recovery is gone. So simply continue with inadequate pain control** and half-hearted comfort measures, and keep the ICU as hectic, loud, scary and impersonal as possible.

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**Maintaining inadequate pain control will continue as a matter of course as long as the Central Authority continues sending the DOJ after the occasional pain-management doctor. Whether the target physician is actually engaging in analgesic excesses is unimportant to the goal of making any American doctor afraid of aggressively controlling their patients’ pain, for fear of becoming a target themselves.
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The end-of-life proponents will tell the patients themselves that assisted suicide will finally bring comfort to their long-suffering family and friends, whose lives have been “so disrupted by your prolonged illness.” And make sure all those family and friends continue suffering long, by keeping those ICU waiting rooms hot, cramped, noisy, uncomfortable and smelly.

You get the idea. Simply make sure the arguments of the end-of-life proponents have teeth. You’re good at that.

5) Tell Patients to Consult With Their Doctors First.

That’s right. Refer patients to their doctors, their supposed personal advocates, the selfsame individuals you yourself have long since fatally compromised (by grabbing control of their individual professional viability). Assuming you have placed sufficient cost-cutting pressures on doctors, then their willingness to encourage (or at least not discourage) assisted suicide will be substantial. So when patients do consult with their doctors, the doctors will not undermine your subtle efforts, but will become your partners in convincing those approaching end-of-life to just be reasonable.

6) Make Physician-Assisted Suicide Legal, But Not Reimbursable.

You’re going for the Botox model here. You do not want physician-assisted suicide to be merely another hush-hush medical procedure, conducted quietly and almost secretly in a typical doctor’s office, so that people can pretend it doesn’t exist. Rather, you want to establish it as something that’s front and center, something people will want and ask for and go out of their way to seek. You want to encourage doctors to establish inventive business models for assisted suicide,  just as the dermatologists have done with their Botox clinics.

Accomplishing this, of course, will require assisted suicide to be made legal everywhere (and not just in Oregon and a few other progressive states), but at the same time will require you to NOT make it a reimbursable medical service. For once it’s made reimbursable it will become subject to typical Medicare price controls, which thus will keep prices high and limit innovation. And in this once instance, you will not want to limit innovation.

Just think of the possibilities: One envisions physician-assisted suicide becoming established as a “life cycle event” like a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, where the right atmosphere, the right spirituality, and the right tone come together to create an unforgettable, uplifting experience for everyone. Some assisted suicides will take place in a doctor’s office, of course, but why not in a place of worship, a favorite city, a resort, a mountain top, a rocky coast – a casino? Why not allow the prospective decedent to actually hear the eulogies and experience the tearful tributes before actually engaging (ritually) in the Act? Why not partner with the new deathcare industry you will be unleashing (talk about job creation!) to wrap this final “healthcare service” into a comprehensive package along with funeral services, grave sites and headstones, elaborate obituaries, and full coverage on Facebook, Twitter, and UTube?  Why not engage American media to celebrate the event with a new mode of reality programming (one that is sure to garner a massive share of viewers)? Why not, at last, GUARANTEE every American their 15 minutes of fame (even if it’s their last 15 minutes)? Why not convert what is today an antiseptic, impersonal and frightening process into one that makes everybody say, “Yes! That’s the only way to go!”

The beauty is that this sort of model will convert what is today, at best, merely the option for assisted suicide into something that’s expected – a true destination event, a natural part of life. Indeed, not opting for assisted suicide, at a certain point in one’s life, will come to be seen as unusual, unreasonable, greedy and selfish. And when granny begins to spend more time in a doctor’s office or (worse) in a hospital, where frequent visitation is expected and other family inconveniences are generated, some loving grandchild will pat her precious wrinkled hand, and say, “Granny, you know, it’s getting to be about that time. Wouldn’t a last weekend in Vegas be just the thing?”

So, if you play your cards right – passively encouraging the end-of-life movement in its effort to spread the word, while making the alternative (i.e., not committing suicide) as nasty and foul an option as possible, and also while coercing doctors and encouraging families to view assisted suicide as the most advantageous modus exodus one could ever imagine – well, the “right” to assisted suicide will shortly become the expectation and even the duty for assisted suicide.

If you who run government or private health plans will just follow DrRich’s simple program, you will have accomplished all this without seeming crass and self-serving, as you most certainly do each time you send somebody a letter like the one you sent the unfortunate Ms. Wagner.

Can Advance Directives Be Salvaged?

DrRich | February 3rd, 2011 - 7:29 am

Podcast:

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This is the first in a series of articles on End-of-Life Care and Covert Rationing.  The second article can be found here.

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It is easy to have missed it, because it went by so quickly.

On January 1, the White House announced a new policy that would have paid doctors for discussing end-of-life planning during their Medicare patients’ annual “wellness visit.” Under this policy, physicians would be paid to encourage their patients to establish an advance directive, which would guide medical care if the patient became incapacitated from illness, and could no longer make medical decisions for him/herself.

But on January 5, the new policy was suddenly revoked. It was revoked, CMS lamely explained, because it had not been implemented using the correct process. But, as anyone would know who watched Congress make Obamacare the law of the land, this could not possibly have been the real reason.

The real reason, of course, has to do with the firestorm this new policy threatened to unleash, just as the House of Representatives was about to be taken over by the cretinous opposition party.

As regular readers will recall, the Obamacare bill originally included similar language on advance directives. Physicians were supposed to urge their patients, repeatedly if necessary, to establish advance directives, and their success in extracting advance directives from their patients was to be one of the “performance measures” by which doctors would be judged to be in good or bad standing with the Central Authority.

But then Sarah Palin said “death panels,” and a furor ensued. The provision on advance directives was quickly removed from the Obamacare legislation, as if Congress was admitting that Ms. Palin had been correct and they had been caught out.* Similarly, the effort last month to reinstate the provision failed to stick for fear of criticism at a bad time.

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*The original advance directive provision in Obamacare, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with “death panels,” since there are no panels of any sort involved in establishing advance directives. Rather, the entities that some might call death panels, and which DrRich has chosen to call GOD panels (Government Operatives Deliberating) – that is, panels of distinguished experts that will determine, by means of “guidelines,” which patients will get what, when and how – remain fully operative within Obamacare.
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DrRich has nothing against advance directives, and indeed, thinks they are a good idea – in concept, at least. Advance directives allow patients to establish beforehand, usually by a written document, what kinds of medical treatment they would or would not want should they fall victim to a serious, life-threatening illness that leaves them unable to express their wishes. Advance directives are supposed to work by providing guidance to their physicians, who, in their fiduciary capacity, are charged with acting in the patient’s best interest.

A well-constructed advance directive allows patients to choose to spare themselves from demeaning, undignified, painful or otherwise undesirable medical procedures and treatments, should they become incapacitated at a later date. “Well-constructed” implies that the advance directives are clearly and concisely written, that they honor the ethical and legal norms approved by society, and that they provide the physician with clear guidance.

But it is more difficult to write a “well-constructed” advance directive than might at first meet the eye. The major problems are two-fold: Advance directives often express imperfect knowledge, and they are often imperfectly expressed. These limitations mean that in appropriately exercising an advance directive, often the physician cannot follow them to the letter, but must interpret them according to the circumstances at hand.

A healthy and relatively robust individual cannot always know how he or she will feel years into the future, when illness strikes and it is time to exercise an advance directive. Every doctor has seen critically ill patients who, despite having advance directives to the contrary, unhesitatingly choose to be attached to a ventilator when the time comes, for instance, rather than face certain imminent death. So experienced doctors know that advance directives do not always indicate what patients will actually choose to do when the time to make a choice is upon them.

They also know that, while conscious patients have the opportunity to repeal their advance directives, unconscious or incapacitated patients do not.** So, in exercising an advance directive, the conscientious physician interprets that directive in light of many other factors, such as, her personal knowledge of the patient, the opinions of family as to what the patient would want done, and the chances of a long-term recovery if the therapy being considered is used. Then she will negotiate with responsible family members an approach that appears to meet the patient’s presumed desires.

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**Conscious patients can repeal their advance directives in theory. DrRich has witnessed actual doctors, however, arguing vociferously against using a medical therapy that a sick patient now desperately wants, because years ago the patient signed an advance directive expressing aversion to that therapy.
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Therefore the advance directive in many cases is an important part of the decision-making process, but it is not the only part. The appropriate use of an advance directive requires the doctor to behave as a true patient advocate, to selflessly place the desires expressed in the directive in context with everything else that might affect the patient’s true and current wishes, and then make a recommendation that, to the best of his or her ability, honors those wishes.

Unfortunately, doctors can no longer act primarily as their individual patient’s advocate. Indeed, physicians are officially enjoined (by the New Ethics formally adopted by their own professional organizations) to give the needs of society at least equal consideration. And so, as has demonstrably happened with other “guidelines” in medicine, it is inevitable that advance directives will be reduced to a legal edict, which must be followed to the letter if the physician wishes to remain clear of the Department of Justice.

The likelihood that there will be no room for interpretation means that constructing just the right kind of advance directive for yourself – one that will be precisely suitable to any contingency that may occur – has become extremely difficult. If you get the details just a little bit wrong for the circumstances that actually arise, the price you pay may be very heavy. It would be better to have no advance directive at all than to have one that is misleading or ambiguous. Advance directives must be written with extreme care, and only after long, thoughtful consideration.

That is not how the government would have it, however. For many years now, the Feds, under the Patient Self-Determination Act, requires hospitals to inform patients about advance directives at the time of every hospital admission, and to invite them to sign one. To say this is a less than ideal time to implement an advance directive would be something of an understatement. Asking a patient to sign an advance directive at the time of hospital admission, often by including it in the pile of routine and mind-numbing legalistic documents which patients must sign if they want to receive medical care, and often with no more guidance than that provided by the admissions clerk (who might explain, “This tells the doctors you don’t want to be kept alive on a machine like a vegetable,”) tells us something about whether the true motive for advance directives is to protect the patient’s autonomy – or to reduce costs.

Having the discussion in a doctor’s office these days, sadly, might not be much better. The Central Authority knows that squeezing what really ought to be at least a 30-minute discussion into a 10-15 minute office visit already packed with Pay for Performance requirements (while providing the added threat of punishment if the physician fails to extract an advance directive from the patient), will yield, at best, a signature on a boiler-plate document.

But despite the slap-dash method by which such a document may be implemented, it is a document whose language – when the time comes – will be exercised with all the legalistic exactitude of a contract attorney by any doctor who knows what’s good for him.

DrRich thinks that Americans are right in being suspicious of the big push they are seeing to urge advance directives upon them. Invoking “death panels” in this regard is utterly inappropriate, but the end result will suffice. It is good that we have all been given pause.

Still, the concept of advance directives is a good one, and DrRich thinks most Americans might do well to have one. Despite the damage that is being done to them, DrRich thinks advance directives can be salvaged. To this end, DrRich suggests several steps we can all take in executing an advance directive that will actually do what we want it to do:

1) Don’t be pressured into implementing an advance directive by anybody whose career depends on keeping the Central Authority happy. Unfortunately, this likely includes your doctor if you are not paying your doctor yourself.

2) Don’t sign a boiler-plate document. These likely will have been drafted with the interests of the Central Authority in mind, with the help of very smart lawyers, and when these documents are called into use in all probability they will be interpreted for the convenience of the Central Authority.

3) Try to keep your advance directive from showing up in an electronic medical record. Write it yourself, and store it where your loved ones can find it when they need it. Give a copy to your spouse, your children, and perhaps (if you have a direct-pay doctor who works only for you) your physician. This way, since your advance directive will not be immediately available to hospital personnel if you are suddenly incapacitated, no unfortunate and irreversible decisions regarding the aggressiveness of your medical care can be made until your loved ones are notified.

4) Write your advance directive as a general guideline, with as few specifics regarding particular types of medical care as possible. You should assume that any type of treatment you mention in a negative light will be withheld under any and all circumstances, including circumstances you may not be aware of in which you would want that treatment.

5) You are not writing your advance directive for the doctors (it is most tragic that we can no longer trust doctors in this regard!); you are writing it to help your loved ones make the right decisions for you, perhaps despite the doctors. So your goal should be to clarify your general desires for your loved ones. Discuss your advance directive with your loved ones after you have written it, and ideally, before you have written it. Your written words will remind them of your wishes when the time is right.

Lest you think, Dear Reader, that  DrRich is merely being sarcastic  here (and why would anyone think so?), he is not. DrRich himself has an advanced directive that attempts to follow these rules. The document is stored at home with his important papers. Mrs. DrRich knows where to find it, and knows DrRich’s general feelings regarding these matters. With the guidance he has provided, DrRich trusts her and his children to make these important decisions for him. For anyone who is interested, DrRich’s advance directive is reproduced, in its entirety, at the end of this post. (The general language, which has been adapted and revised by DrRich for his own use, was originally suggested to him by a good friend who is a superb internal medicine practitioner.)

So. Advance directives are a very good idea, but unfortunately, have been identified by the Central Authority as a potentially powerful cost-cutting tool. Even before Obamacare, certain HMOs were refusing to reimburse hospitals or doctors that provided medical care that seemed to go against specific language contained in an advance directive. That, of course, was child’s play. Now that the Central Authority has gotten hold of them, advance directives will likely be treated the same way as other guidelines are now treated in medicine, that is, as edicts, and thus as vehicles for the criminal prosecution of medical personnel who deign to “interpret” them.

This means that if you wish to take advantage of the benefits which advance directives can provide, you will have to proceed very, very carefully.

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DrRich’s Advance Directive:

If I am able to communicate my wishes by any means whatsoever, then I wish to make my own decisions regarding my own healthcare. If, despite my ability to communicate, my condition makes it inconvenient to fully inform me of my situation and all my treatment options, then until such time as it becomes sufficiently convenient to do so, I want everything possible to be done to sustain my life and effect a recovery.

In the event of an incapacitating illness in which I cannot communicate, the basic guideline initially should be to do everything possible to sustain my life and effect a recovery.

After a reasonable period of time (in general, I would consider a week to be reasonable) if no progress has been made in the recovery of my mental function, and the likelihood of mental recovery is judged to be small, then withdrawal of life-sustaining care should be strongly considered. To help my wife and/or children with this decision, I would like to have an evaluation by a neurologist to help clarify the prognosis.

If improvement in my mental status has been made, then efforts to sustain my life and affect a recovery should be continued.

If at any point in my care there is a period of at least two weeks in which I am persistently unable to carry out meaningful communications sufficient to make my own wishes known (in the opinion of my family members and the neurologist), and the likelihood of mental recovery is judged to be small, then I would consider the withdrawal of life-sustaining care to be a blessing.