A Vietnam veteran steered clear of the health care system for years, then showed up at the hospital with pneumonia and respiratory failure. He was whisked to the intensive care unit, and cancerous masses were found.
The situation – as described by Jeffrey Frank, MD, director of quality and performance at Vituity, a physician group in Emeryville, Calif. – then got worse.
“No one was there for him,” Dr. Frank said. “He’s laying in the ICU, he does not have the capacity to make decisions, let alone communicate. So the care team needs guidance.”
Too often, hospitalists find themselves in confusing situations involving patients near the end of their lives, having to determine how to go about treating a patient or withholding treatment when patients are not in a position to announce their wishes. When family is present, the health care team thinks the most sensible course of treatment is at odds with what the family wants to be done.
At the Society of Hospital Medicine 2019 Annual Conference, hospitalists with palliative care training offered advice on how to go about handling these difficult situations, which can sometimes become more manageable with certain strategies.
For situations in which there is no designated representative to speak for a patient who is unresponsive – the so-called “unbefriended patient” or “unrepresented patient” – any source of information can be valuable. And health care providers should seek out this input, Dr. Frank said.
“When there is a visitor at the bedside, and as long as they know the person, and they can start giving the medical providers some information about what the patient would have wanted, most of us will talk with that person and that’s actually a good habit,” he said.
Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have regulations on whom health care providers should talk to when there is no obvious representative, Dr. Frank said, noting that most of these regulations follow a classic family-tree order. But in the discouraging results of many surveys of health care providers on the subject, most clinicians say that they do not know the regulations in their state, Dr. Frank said. But he said such results betray a silver lining because clinicians say that they would be inclined to use a family tree–style hierarchy in deciding with whom they should speak about end of life decisions.
Hospitalists should at least know whether their hospital has a policy on unrepresented patients, Dr. Frank said.
“That’s your road map on how to get through consenting this patient – what am I going to do with Mr. Smith?” he said. “You may ask yourself, ‘Do I just keep treating him and treating him?’ If you have a policy at your hospital, it will protect you from liability, as well as give you a sense of process.”
Conflicts in communication
An even worse situation, perhaps, is one that many hospitalists have seen: A patient is teetering at the edge of life, and a spouse arrives, along with two daughters from out of state who have not seen their father in a year, said Elizabeth Gundersen, MD, director of the ethics curriculum at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton.