In an insightful new book, medical anthropologist Sharon Kaufman persuasively delineates the forces that lead older patients to “yes.” Despite all the rhetoric about shared decision-making, about patients making choices based on their personal values and preferences, an interlinked series of powerful forces conspire to shape that “decision.” It’s not surprising, according to this compelling account, that invasive technology is used so extensively in older patients, with the threshold for what is considered old constantly rising.
The first step, in Professor Kaufman’s account, is that the scientific establishment, fueled by NIH and increasingly by private industry (medical device makers and pharmaceutical companies), develops ever more sophisticated, potentially life-extending technology. If the FDA finds the technology to be “safe and effective,” then Medicare, the insurer for virtually every person over age 65, will by and large pay for it. Once payment is assured, the technology quickly moves from being “acceptable” to being the “standard of care.” After all, surely whatever is on offer must surely be advisable. And if it might prolong life, and it’s free (or almost free), why not? Finally, the families who will often be the ones to administer or monitor the technology if patients avail themselves of it, and who will take mom or dad to the hospital when something goes wrong, find themselves in a position of feeling morally required to support the technology’s use. Sometimes that even means donating a kidney or resigning one’s job.
Kaufman concludes that there’s no simple fix to a health care system that relentlessly provides more and more to older and older people, regardless of cost and despite its burdens. Simple “decision aids,” with their focus on rational choice and clear depiction of risks and benefits, cannot possibly counteract the “ethical field,” the social, cultural, and market-driven environment in which patients along with their families and their doctors operate. But I think there is a ray of hope. And it may be a brighter ray than what Kaufman proposes, which is that if only we understood the complicated underpinnings of today’s reality, an understanding that she goes far to advance, we would be in a better position to change that system.
I suspect that her linear model of the forces propelling us towards ever more technology in medicine—the scientific enterprise, the FDA, Medicare, societal norms, and patient/family morality—is actually more complex. It’s very likely a series of feedback loops, with each factor influencing and being influenced by all the others. Yes, scientific discoveries and technological inventions, when their efficacy is demonstrated in clinical trials, lead to Medicare reimbursement. But the awareness on the part of the device manufacturers and the drug companies of the circumstances under which Medicare will pay for their products also shapes what avenues of inquiry they pursue. Yes, patients’ understanding that Medicare will pay for a device or a procedure shapes their view of the standard of care. But patients’ expectations also influence Medicare’s coverage decisions.