Withdrawing life support after severe brain injury (complicated post)

Is Life Support Being Withdrawn Too Soon After ICH?
Medscape Medical News, 2013-02-13

Claude Hemphill et al have written about this concept for years.  Claude’s enormous heart is in the right place. He and everyone else for that matter desires to do the right thing in terms of maximizing treatment to get the best outcome possible.  However, the author here is preaching to the wrong choir. This is not an article per se, but a review of a concept by “Medscape”, the “People Magazine” of medical information.  The information therein is just vague enough to potentially suggest to family practitioners and patient surrogates that read Medscape that the “more is better” theory is synonymous with “if more is better than more than that might be better yet.”

The issue of prospective living wills and powers of attorney for health care delivery is not mentioned, so one might get the impression that a good course might be to suggest that an incompetent patient who has previously opted out for extended ICU care on “life support” might have made a “better” decision on the basis of this data. If that’s the case, then as the French say: “Ze worm….. it is out of ze can” as it pertains to other prospective wish issues.

This article opines:  “Those outcomes in these patients may not still be true today with our sophisticated medical care”.  There is no convincing data to suggest this is true in many, many ICU treatments, many of which convert death to life-in-death ensconced in skilled nursing facilities. The “we can do so much more than we used to” argument is directly responsible for many surrogate demands for open-ended ICU care. The mortality and morbidity statistics for ICU care have changed little in the past 20 years, and recent evidence of an intensive four year study by Levy and Chalfin et al rather convincingly suggest that the odds of hospital mortality were higher for patients managed by ICU physicians than not *.

3.  The article does not mention any limits as to how much longer an ICU admission will take to generate how much improvement in a patient to break the threshold of “acceptable quality of life”.  So, which scenario do you believe according to the ongoing clinical evidence, not the prospective optimism:

A. Each additional day of ICU care has
increasing potential to generate a viable
patient and each additional treatment
has more potential to improve outcome?

B.  Each additional day of ICU care
Does not show any improvement and each additional
therapeutic treatment has more potential
to prolong length of stay?

If you take the position that each additional day of ICU care has diminishing potential to generate a viable patient, but each additional therapeutic treatment has more potential to increase length of stay based on “hope”, then you have elevated “hope” to a self fulfilling prophesy. Your responsibility to your resource allocation system is to give up.  It isn’t a “right thing to do” anymore. It becomes practical economics. There IS a limit and you’ve reached it.

If, however, you take the position that each additional day of ICU care has increasing potential to generate a viable patient, and each additional treatment has more potential to improve quality of life than the one before it, then you will be asked to support that position not as the “right thing to do” in a perfect world but in terms of cost/benefit. When is it a straight up money issue.

In 2009, the USA spent (all told) twenty five trillion dollars on health care. That’s US$8,000 per person, 17.3% of the GDP and increasing about 6% annually. But we only fully indemnify about ~ 60% of our population and the USA ranks below Portugal in preventable mortality. California increased its cost of health insurance 20% this year and there is no end in sight. As the price of health care goes up, fewer businesses can afford health care for their employees. 62% of all personal bankruptcies involve medical bills in 2010. The whole system is swirling around the bowl and the advent of the AHCA of 2008 (fully implemented in early 2014), will radically change the whole concept of health care indemnification.

There are several fixation options available, two of which will painful prescriptions for providers.

1.      Allocate resources toward health care and away from other previous priorities such as entitlement programs, military security, and bureaucratic priorities.

2.      Pay providers less for the same (or increased) workload.

3.      Reorganize health care spending so that more money is spent on some services and less or nothing is spent on others; essentially, say no more often.

History suggests that it is unlikely any modern society can or will decrease support of entitlements such as social welfare, unemployment insurance, social security benefits, or retirement benefits that citizens depend on and have paid into during their working careers. Cutting military security funding is equally unlikely. Most if not all national budgets include little else that can be reallocated in any meaningful amount. That leaves options 2 and 3. It is virtually certain that providers will have to reorganize their priorities one way or the other, and accept less remuneration in the process.’’

That said, if the patient is not better in a week, then how long are you wiling to wait on hope-based criteria?  Two weeks?  Six weeks? Indefinitely?   UPMC bills NICU care (full support) at around US$12,000 per day of which it collects about a third from most indemnifiers. I figure the real cost of an ICU day to the hospital is about break even, maybe slightly below. When will the moneymen find a break point instead of you? None of them have arrived in your (or my) office yet, but that day is coming, and when it does, defense of your resource allocation decisions will not be credible if it’s anecdotal. Providers will squeal like pigs in hot oil to be greeted by the stone faces of suits

“All the voyeurs and the lawyers
who can pull a fountain pen,
And put you where they choose,
With the language that they use,
And enslave you till you
work your youth away”

Don McLean (Bronco Bill’s Lament, 1970)

*  http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/cc8910.pdf

(Sorry- Typos are routine for me. I never proofread. Write it once and never read it again)

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