Unreasonable optimism among physicians negatively impacts patients’ end of life care- often influencing the terminally ill to accept more aggressive, costly treatments with little chance of effectiveness.
Haider Javed Warraich, a resident of internal medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, recounts his optimism when he first met a woman suffering from heart failure and a condition preventing blood from flowing out of her heart.
“While learning her medical history, I also got to know her,” Warraich writes. His patient was a 50 year-old former artist, derailed by addiction. “At this point, she wasn’t a suitable candidate for heart surgery. But I felt there was still hope,” he recounts in The New York Times Sunday Review.
With perseverance, Warraich convinced his colleagues to order a procedure called alcohol septal ablation. Though the procedure could potentially reduce her symptoms, it came with many risks. His patient died the next day, after a complete heart block and aggressive attempts to revive her.
Warraich explains that he was victim of “irrational optimism, a condition running rampant in both doctors and patients, particularly in end of life care.” These physicians may push for costly and more aggressive treatments as a last resort, even when there is little hope of recovery.
As a study published in 2000 for the British Medical Journal shows, about two-thirds of doctors overestimate the survival of terminally ill patients. ”Doctors are inaccurate in their prognoses for terminally ill patients and the error is systematically optimistic,” concluded the researchers, headed by Nicholas A. Christakis, then of the University of Chicago.
Many times, those poor estimates are never fully communicated to the patient. A 2001 study of cancer patients published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that physicians only told patients their estimated survival 37 percent of the time. No estimate was given 23 percent of the time. “Around 70 percent of the discrepant estimates were overly optimistic,” Warraich notes.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that cancer patients who talk with their physicians about how they want to die are less likely to opt for aggressive end of life treatments in the last two weeks of life, and they have much more comfortable deaths.
“Aggressive care at the end of life for individual patients isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just that most patients who recognize they’re dying don’t want to receive that kind of care,” said lead author Dr. Jennifer Mack of Harvard University Medical School.
Similarly, Warraich suggests more palliative care for patients unlikely to survive a serious illness. “Modern palliative care originated in response to the proliferation of new treatments and resuscitation technologies,” he writes. Palliative care not only provides more comfort alongside standard treatments, but it has been shown to help patients live a little longer.
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