This week revealed the long-awaited results of a trial of the “Serious Illness Program,” the meticulously designed and carefully studied project of researchers in palliative care at Dana Farber Cancer Institute and at the Boston think tank, Ariadne Labs. Initially conceived of as a “checklist” by checklist enthusiast and founding director of Ariadne, Atul Gawande, the program has evolved into an educational program for clinicians. Specifically, it involves teaching physicians to use the “Serious Illness Conversation Guide” to structure discussions with patients about end of life preferences and values. In this study, carried out at 41 “clusters” comprised of 91 physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants working within the Dana Farber orbit, palliative care physicians did the teaching and provided follow up coaching. Ultimately, only 35 clusters providing care to 209 eligible patients had evaluable data. What the results showed is that despite all the effort spread over a four-year period, the Serious Illness Conversation Guide failed to achieve any of its primary outcomes.
The researchers hypothesized that if physicians were trained to use the researchers’ communications tool, patients would be more likely to have “goal-concordant care;” that is, the treatment they received would be aligned with their wishes. In addition, it was hoped, they would be more likely to experience a peaceful end of life. Neither effect was observed. There was less anxiety and depression among patients whose physicians had been trained to use the Serious Illness Conversation Guide, though perhaps a less-labor intensive or qualitatively different approach would have achieved the same effect.
What should we conclude from the failure of this communications guide to achieve its goals? The authors blame it on the small sample size and low patient accrual rate. They point out that their conclusions are of limited generalizability, given that the patient population was predominantly white, affluent, and college-educated. The more fundamental question, however, is whether the intervention itself is valuable. Despite its being well-received by physicians, perhaps the tool is just not an effective approach to educating physicians in communication skills.
An even deeper assumption of this study is that the major problem with end of life care is poor communication by physicians. A very different perspective formed the basis of the Robert Wood Johnson’s program, Promoting Excellence at the End of Life, which focused principally on educating and empowering patients. This program, despite an enormous financial commitment and extensive evaluation, also failed, as evidenced by the 1995 SUPPORT study, “The Study to Understand Prognoses and Preferences for Outcomes and Risks of Treatments.” The reality, I suspect, is that we need to simultaneously affect both physicians and patients if end of life care is to change.
One more possibility to consider is that despite what patients say when given theoretical options such as "would you rather die at home or in the hospital?" or "when you are at the end of life, would you prefer comfort care?" in fact, when faced with the reality of a life-limiting illness, patients want all possible efforts at life-prolongation, whatever the personal cost, and they expect their physicians to provide them. Maybe they don't want to discuss options with their physicians. The language of obituaries, "he passed away after a long battle" or after a "heroic struggle" very likely reflects contemporary culture. We need to study what patients want when they are faced with an actual illness, not with an abstract possibility.