Nearly 30 years have passed since Congress passed the Patient Self-Determination Act, enthroning advance care planning as an important part of care in the last phase of life. While the frequency with which patients designate someone to serve as their proxy in the event of incapacity has increased dramatically and the use of various planning instruments such as living wills and instructional directives has also risen, in most settings no more than one-third of patients with serious illness actually have conversations with their physicians about their preferences.
Assuming that it’s a good idea for patients with serious illnesses to speak with their physicians about their goals of care, whose responsibility is it to raise the question? Does it make more sense to concentrate on educating physicians to communicate well about goals or to focus on empowering patients?
Over the years, different initiatives have targeted one population or the other. The Robert Wood Johnson’s “Project on Death in America,” a multi-hundred-million-dollar project launched in 1994, focused to a large extent on prospective patients. The AMA’s program, “Education on Palliative and End-of-Life Care” (EPEC), also introduced in the 1990s, is targeted entirely to physicians (in fact, the “P” in the title used to refer to physicians: when first launched, the program was called “Educating Physicians on End-of-Life Care”.) More recently, a series of videos by Angelo Volandes of ACP Decisions aims to show patients and their families what various medical treatments entail, while the “Serious Illness Conversation Guide” from Susan Block, Atul Gawande and others at Ariadne Labs offers a checklist of questions to help physicians structure their discussions.
So, who needs more attention, the doctors or the patients? A new study in Health Affairs may offer some clues. I should point out at the outset that the Health Affairs article does not seek to weigh in on the question of whether to concentrate on physicians or on patients when designing interventions to promote advance care planning. The aim of the study, as indicated by its ponderous title, “Factors Contributing to Geographic Variation in End-of-Life Expenditures for Cancer Patients,” is to understand why some regions of the US spend so much more on care near the end of life than other reasons, with no discernible difference in outcomes.
There are methodological problems with this study, as with all studies that start with death and work backwards—it is possible that although the people who died had similar outcomes (perhaps not surprising, as they all died), other people who weren’t considered in the study because they didn’t die were more likely to do well if more money was spent on them. Nonetheless, we have two groups of people with advanced lung or colorectal cancer on whom very different amounts of money were spent—in the lowest quintile, the average outlay was $10,131 and in the highest quintile, the average expenditure was $19,318). Was the decision to spend more coming from patient pressure or was it something that physicians were pushing for?
What the authors found was that in the high spending areas, physicians were less knowledgeable about treating dying patients (by their self-report), less comfortable providing care to patients near the end of life, and had less favorable attitudes toward hospice than their counterparts in the low spending areas. The high spending areas also tended to have more specialty physicians but fewer primary care physicians, as well as fewer hospices (per capita) than elsewhere. But—and here’s the key—patients’ beliefs about what they wanted were no different in high and low-spending areas.
All the statistically significant findings were in the domain of physicians, not patients:
Now, this finding does not directly translate into the question of who drives decision-making near the end of life in general and advance care planning discussions in particular. But it strongly suggests that physicians play an outsized role in shaping what happens to patients. Many patients don’t have pre-determined preferences; their values do not unambiguously determine what kind of medical treatment they should get. Or, if they do have some idea of what would be best for them, they are nonetheless strongly influenced by the views of their physicians. If “shared decision-making” is to work, both partners need to be informed and on board—and the physicians are particularly in need of some attention.