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Chapter 49. Advance Planning For End-of-Life Care
Nina Garas, M.D.
Emory University School of Medicine
Steven Z. Pantilat, M.D.
University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine
Physicians and other healthcare workers have long struggled
with decisions regarding care for patients at the end of life. An important
component of this care involves assessing and understanding patient preferences
for care through ongoing discussions with competent adult patients and/or their
family members or surrogates. Advance care planning protects patient autonomy
and helps to assure that their health and medical treatment wishes are
implemented. Good communication at the end of life can also help patients
achieve closure and meaning in the final days of their life.
Over the past 20 years, public consciousness regarding planning
for end-of-life care has been raised through several seminal court cases, such
as those involving Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan. These cases and the
public interest they helped engender led to legislation promoting patients'
rights to determine their care at the end of life. For example, Natural Death
Acts (statutes passed by state legislatures that assert a person's right
to make decisions regarding terminal care) have helped promote the use of living
wills (described below).1 In addition, in 1990 the federal Patient
Self-Determination Act (PSDA) was passed by Congress to encourage competent
adults to complete advance directives. The PSDA requires hospitals, nursing
homes, health maintenance organizations, and hospices that participate in
Medicare and Medicaid to ask if patients have advance directives, to provide
information about advance directives, and to incorporate advance directives into
the medical record.2
Advance directives are any expression by a patient intended
to guide care, should they lose their medical decision making capacity. Although
both oral and written statements are valid, the added effort required to
complete written statements gives them greater weight. In addition to their use
when patients lose competence, advance directives also help patients consider
the type of care they would want in the future, even if they retain decision
making capacity. Advance directives have legal validity in almost every
There are 2 principal forms of written advance directives:
living wills and durable powers of attorney for healthcare. A living will
is a document that allows an individual to indicate the interventions he or she
would want if he or she is terminally ill, comatose with no reasonable hope of
regaining consciousness, or in a persistent vegetative state with no reasonable
hope of regaining significant cognitive function. A durable power of attorney
for healthcare (DPOA-HC) is a more comprehensive document that allows an
individual to appoint a person to make healthcare decisions for him or her
should he or she lose decision making capacity.
Prevalence and Severity of the Target
Respecting patient preferences regarding end-of-life care
requires a well-coordinated approach. Problems can arise in both documenting
patient preferences and ensuring that preferences are available and respected at
the time they are needed. In addition, inadequate communication with patients
can compromise the goal of respecting patient preferences for end-of-life care
through a variety of mechanisms.
Failure to Document Preferences
The PSDA was a legislative solution (see Chapter 55) designed
to increase rates of completed advance directives. Although there was initial
hope that PSDA would markedly increase rates of advance directive documentation,
by the early 1990s it was clear that the impact was small. At that time, a large
multicenter randomized trial, the Study to Understand Prognoses and Preferences
for Outcomes and Risks of Treatments (SUPPORT), was undertaken to improve
advance care planning. SUPPORT represents one of the largest and most
comprehensive efforts to describe patient preferences in seriously ill patients,
and to evaluate how effectively patient preferences are communicated. SUPPORT
cost 28 million dollars and enrolled 9100 seriously ill patients. In SUPPORT, a
trained nurse facilitator provided prognostic information to patients and
medical staff, discussed patient preferences with patients and families, and
facilitated communication between patients and physicians.
Neither the PSDA legislation nor the SUPPORT intervention had
major impacts on the documentation of patients' preferences regarding
end-of-life care. Teno et al reported on the documentation of advance directives
at 3 points: before PSDA, after PSDA, and after the SUPPORT intervention. The
percentage of patients with an advance directive was unchanged in all 3 groups,
but documentation of those directives increased at each stage, from 6% to 35% to
78% in the SUPPORT intervention group. Despite this increase in documentation,
only 12% of patients with an advance directive had talked with a physician when
completing the document and only 25% of physicians were aware of their patients'
advance directives.3 SUPPORT found that only 23% of seriously ill
patients had talked to their doctors about their wishes concerning
cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and that patient-physician discussions and
decisions were uncommon even in seriously ill patients whose death was
predictable.4 Another study that surveyed elders in community
settings found that the vast majority (81%) stated their desire to discuss their
preferences with their physicians if they were terminally ill, but only 11% had
done so.5 As these studies demonstrate, patients often want to talk
about death and dying but expect physicians to bring up the
Ensuring that Preferences are Available and Respected
Even when advance directives are prepared, studies show they
often do not change interventions at the end of life.3,7 Advance
directives are frequently not available, recognized or applied, nor do they help
reduce hospital resource use. There are multiple reasons why advance directives
may go unrecognized.8 Admitting clerks may fail to document or
incorrectly document the status of a directive on admission to the hospital.
Patients and families often do not inform the hospital physician or admitting
clerk about their advance directives, or fail to bring documentation to the
hospital.8 In one survey of 200 patients, only 18% had filled out an
advance directive and of these, 50% had secured the only copy in a safety
deposit box!9 A copy of the advance directive is often not
transferred from the nursing home to the hospital on admission. In a study by
Morrison, physicians documented advance directives or discussions with appointed
proxies about treatment decisions in only 11% of admission
Although the goal of advance directives is to ensure that
patients receive treatment that is consistent with their preferences, to date
there is no evidence that documenting advance directives leads to this outcome.
In SUPPORT, there was no evidence that increasing the rates of advance
directives resulted in care more consistent with patients'
preferences.10 This finding was concordant with a study of nursing
home patients and their family members regarding preferences for aggressive
treatment at the end of life. There, 25% of patients received care that was
inconsistent with their previously expressed wishes.11 The problem
may not be the substance of advance directives per se, but rather in the
manner in which clinicians approach them. Physicians may be hesitant to initiate
discussions of advance directives with patients, especially early in the course
of an illness.12
Despite these shortcomings, advance directives remain the best
available approach for helping patients plan future care. These discussions,
difficult as they are, help ensure that patients receive care consistent with
their values and goals, spare the patient inappropriate interventions, and help
maintain dignity during the dying process.
In order to improve the quality of end-of-life care, physicians
need to effectively communicate with their patients and understand their
preferences for care. Several studies have documented imperfections in
physician-patient communication.13,14 Several studies have
demonstrated that physicians often misunderstand or are unaware of their
patients' preferences for care.15,16 Furthermore, physician
prediction of patients' preferences for resuscitation are no better than
In summary, the published literature demonstrates significant
problems in all areas crucial to advance care planning and ascertainment of
patient preferences, transmission of information to appropriate care settings,
and respecting those preferences. The provision of unwanted end-of-life care is
an adverse event that can potentially be avoided by the implementation of
effective patient safety practices.
Opportunities for Impact
Patients with chronic or life-limiting illnesses make up a
large proportion of the adult primary care population. Almost three-quarters of
the 2.3 million Americans that die each year are 65 years of age or older. By
the year 2030, people older than 65 will compromise 20% of the total population
(70 million people), compared with 13% in 1994. Today's average life expectancy
is 75.5 years, and the leading causes of death are heart disease, cancer and
stroke. Data from 1995 estimated that these causes accounted for 62% of all
deaths and 67% of deaths for those age 65 and over.17 The overall
picture is of an aging population, with many individuals living for several
decades (often with chronic diseases) after the possibility of death becomes
more than theoretical.18
SUPPORT documented serious problems with terminal care.
Physicians did not implement patients' refusals of interventions. When patients
wished to forgo CPR, a do not resuscitate order was never written in about 50%
of cases.4 While 90% of Americans say they want to die at home, 4 out
of 5 die in a hospital or other healthcare facility. The SUPPORT study showed
that only 35% of the study patients had an advance directive. These patients had
an approximate six month mortality rate of 50%.
Physicians and the public also commonly overestimate the
effectiveness of CPR. In reality, in-hospital cardiac arrests have a survival
rate of about 15%. For patients over 65 the survival rate is about 10-11%, and
3.5% for patients over age 85.19 Elderly nursing home patients with
out-of-hospital arrest only have 1-2% survival.20 Studies have shown
that when patients are aware of the real survival rates for CPR, they are less
likely to desire this intervention.
Evidence for Effectiveness of the Practice
Documenting Preferences and Ensuring that they are Available and
A Physician Order form for Life-Sustaining Treatment (the POLST)
In the mid-1990s, a task force of ethicists and clinicians at
the Oregon Health Sciences University developed a new Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)
order form called POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment). POLST
is a comprehensive two-page order form that documents a patient's preference for
life-sustaining treatments. The form is designed to record a patient's wishes
clearly and simply. The accompanying POLST wallet card is included as Figure
49.1; the complete POLST form and materials can be obtained from the Oregon
Health Sciences University's Center for Ethics in Health Care
Tolle et al examined the extent to which POLST ensured that
nursing home residents' wishes were honored for DNR orders, and for hospital
admission only if comfort measures failed. None of the 180 patients who
completed POLST received CPR, ICU care, or ventilator support, and only 2% were
hospitalized to extend life. The study subjects had low rates of transfer for
aggressive life-extending treatments and high levels of comfort
Since 1995, more than 220,000 copies of POLST have been
distributed throughout the state. Data from 1999 suggest, albeit
circumstantially, that this initiative may be working. In 1996, Oregon's
in-hospital mortality rate was 31%, compared with the national average of
Lee et al studied the effectiveness of POLST in a Program of
All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) in Portland, Oregon. They
retrospectively reviewed POLST instructions for each of the 58 participants and
whether or not each of the treatments addressed by the POLST was administered in
the final 2 weeks of life. The POLST specified DNR for 50 participants (93%);
CPR use was consistent with these instructions for 49 participants (91%). The
participants also designated the level of care they preferred as either comfort
care, limited, advanced, or full intervention. Interventions administered were
at the level specified in only 25 cases (46%), with less frequent deviations in
antibiotic administration, administration of IV fluids, and placement of feeding
tubes. The investigators concluded that the POLST effectively limits the use of
some life-sustaining interventions, but that further investigation is needed
into the factors that lead physicians to deviate from patients' stated
preferences about other treatments.23
Administrative Initiatives to Ascertain Preferences on
Admission to Hospital or Nursing Home
In addition to POLST, some medical centers have developed
admission order forms to document patient preferences regarding end of life.
These forms require healthcare personnel to inquire about advance directives,
resuscitation preferences, artificial fluids and nutrition, etc. This approach,
promoted by the passage of the PSDA, may be effective in promoting
provider-patient discussions about end-of-life wishes and prevent unwanted
treatments. However, there are no data documenting the effectiveness of this
Ascertaining Preferences in the Outpatient Setting
As with other forms of computerized decision support (Chapter
53), computer-generated reminders for primary caregivers can increase the rates
of discussion of advance directives and completion of advance directive forms
among elderly outpatients with serious illnesses. Dexter et al performed a
randomized, controlled trial to test the effectiveness of computerized
reminders. The participants were 1009 patients and 147 primary care physicians
in an outpatient setting. Physicians that received computer-generated reminders
that recommended discussion of one or both of 2 types of advance directives were
compared with physicians who received no reminders. Physicians who did not
receive reminders (controls) discussed and completed advance directives in only
4% of the patients On the other hand, physicians who received both types of
reminders discussed (24%) and completed (15%) advance directives significantly
The Portability of Advance Directives between Hospitals and
Ghusn et al retrospectively studied the relationship between
inter-institutional communication and continuity of advance directives from
hospital to nursing home settings. Having a hospital discussion about advance
directives or having a hospital DNR order were associated with a higher rate of
advance directive discussions in nursing homes. Hospital DNR orders were
continued for 93% of patients discharged to the hospital-affiliated nursing home
and 41% of patients discharged to the community nursing home. Specific
communication of hospital DNR status to the receiving nursing homes was
associated with better continuity of DNR orders. The authors concluded that
completing advance directives before patients are discharged to nursing homes,
communicating advance directives to the receiving home, and providing follow-up
discussions at the nursing home might improve the continuity of advance
directives between hospitals and nursing homes.25
Practices to improve physician-patient communication and physician
understanding of patient preferences
Training for Physicians
Physician education is an attractive way to improve end-of-life
care. Physicians often do not communicate about advance care planning because
many have not been taught the relevant communication skills and have learned
them only through personal experience.26 A study by Tulsky et al
revealed that when physicians discussed end-of-life issues with their patients,
they spoke twice as much as they listened and did not routinely explore
Until recently, training for healthcare providers in palliative
care and respecting patient preferences, and materials to support such training,
were inadequate. For example, recent studies have demonstrated that most medical
and nursing textbooks insufficiently cover end-of-life care issues.27
Increasingly, resources (including textbooks, palliative care journals or
journal series,28 Web sites and training programs) are filling this
educational void. The American Medical Association has developed an extensive
physician training program titled Education for Physicians on End-of-Life Care
(EPEC).29 This curriculum teaches fundamental skills in
communication, ethical decision making, palliative care, pain and symptom
management, and other end-of-life treatment issues.30 The Robert Wood
Johnson Foundation initiative, "Last Acts," is another ambitious effort to
educate both patients and providers.
Other educational training programs exist for physicians and
students as well.30 Physicians can receive formal training by
attending conferences on decisions near the end of life, case management
meetings regarding individual patients, and seminars on communication skills
with individual feedback to physicians on their performance.31
Physicians with expertise in this area often conduct seminars to educate
physicians. Buckman and Lo have developed guides for specific end-of-life
discussions, such as breaking bad news and the act of active listening and
As attractive as these educational programs are, none have been
studied for their impact on changing practice or outcomes. Although common sense
might tell us that such programs are likely to be effective, the generally
unimpressive relationship between professional education and outcomes or process
change (Chapter 54) provides grist for uncertainty pending formal effectiveness
Palliative Care Services
Specialized palliative care programs have become increasingly common in the
healthcare system. Physicians and other healthcare providers, including nurses,
social workers, chaplains, and others are available to coordinate care and
provide consultation for terminally ill patients in hospices, hospitals, nursing
homes or patient's homes. The palliative care service also plays an important
role in fostering communication among providers, patients, and families. Data
regarding effectiveness are lacking.
Hospitalist physicians may improve end-of-life care in hospitals.
Hospitalists, by virtue of their large inpatient volumes, should become
increasingly facile with ascertaining patient preferences regarding end-of-life
care. Hospitalists have a unique opportunity to approach patients, since an
admission generally signals either a worsening of the patient's current
condition or a new diagnosis. The hospitalist may have more time to spend with
patients and is available over consecutive hospital days to answer any
questions. A routine discussion of advance directives by hospitalists can help
improve the quality and efficiency of patient care.34 On the other
hand, patients may have a long-standing trusting relationship with their primary
care physicians, and may have expressed their wishes to this physician prior to
hospitalization. This possibility highlights the importance of
hospitalist-primary care provider communication, particularly concerning
One retrospective chart review study of 148 patients dying at a
community teaching hospital has examined the impact of hospitalists on
end-of-life care. In this study, patients cared for by hospitalists were
significantly more likely to have had a documented family meeting (91% vs. 63%
for patients of community-based primary physicians). About two-thirds of
patients in both groups requested limitations in the level of care by the time
of death. Of these, patients of hospitalists were significantly less likely to
have documented pain, dyspnea, or anxiety in the 48 hours prior to death (57%
vs. 75%). Whether these differences reflect differences in the quality of care,
the completeness of documentation, or underlying patient differences requires
further study.35 Although the hospitalist movement holds promise for
improving end-of-life discussions, more research is needed to determine whether
this promise will be met.
End-of-Life Education for the Public
Extensive public awareness and educational programs are
necessary to create a foundation for successful end-of-life conversations in
patients with advanced illness. Broadcasts, such as the PBS-Bill Moyers special
"On Our Own Terms," may help the public appreciate the experience of terminal
illness, and the complex choices that are faced. Such presentations may
encourage viewers to discuss how they might manage a similar situation, and
explore their own fears and concerns about dying. There are no data regarding
the effectiveness of public education to improve advance care planning.
Other Locally Successful Advance Care Planning Programs
Individual programs to implement patient preferences have
emerged around the country. Limited data suggest that they may be effective, and
bear further examination as to their portability to other programs and settings
and their durability over time.
- "Respecting Your Choices" Program.
Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin has
worked on community-wide programs to improve advance care planning with an
initiative called "Respecting Your Choices." This program used patient and
family education, community outreach, education for non-medical professionals,
standard training sessions, and standard methods for documenting and tracking
advance directives. Hammes et al reported that 85% of patients in the
intervention group had written advance directives at death, executed on average
1.2 years before death. Of these directives, 95% were in the medical record.
Virtually all patients (95%) reported that the interview process was meaningful.
The patients felt that they benefited from improved communication with loved
ones and with healthcare providers.36
- Dayton VA Initiative.
The Dayton (Ohio) VA Medical Center aimed to increase the
number of veterans who participated in advance care planning. VA patients and
their families received a patient education booklet and a video on advance care
planning. The VA also developed discussion guidelines for providers, initiated
an advance care planning clinic, and initiated a bereavement support group. In a
12-week period, advance care planning discussions and follow-up increased from
about 15% percent of charts to almost 90%.37
- "Let Me Decide" Program.
Molloy et al examined patient satisfaction with decision making
and healthcare costs after systematically implementing an advance directive
program in nursing homes. The "Let Me Decide" program included educating staff
in local hospitals and nursing homes, residents, and families about advance
directives and offering competent residents or next-of-kin of mentally
incompetent residents an advance directive. The researchers reported that
systematic implementation of this program reduced hospitalizations and
aggressive care for nursing home patients who did not want that level of
intervention. It also reduced utilization of healthcare services without
affecting satisfaction or mortality.38
Costs and Implementation
Estimating the cost of ascertaining and respecting patient
preferences is difficult since improvements in this area may require major
changes in the structure of the healthcare system. Institutional barriers, the
culture of medicine, patient attitudes, time constraints physicians face with
office visits may all play a role in implementation and may inhibit
change.26 Barriers to implementation include complacency on the part
of the physician and patient, fear of political controversy, diffused
responsibility, and absence (or perverse) financial incentives for providers and
institutions. The surprising ineffectiveness of the SUPPORT intervention, which
cost over 28 million dollars, demonstrates how difficult it is to make major
improvements in this area. Nevertheless, improving our ability to respect
patient preferences is valuable in its own right and may ultimately prove to be
cost-effective, since some patients will choose to forego high technology and
expensive care at the end of life.
Medical care at the end of life consumes 10% to 12% of the
total healthcare budget. An estimated 40% of the Medicare budget is spent during
the last 30 days of life.39 Some have posited that increased use of
hospice and advance directives and lower use of high-technology interventions
for terminally ill patients will produce significant cost savings. However, the
studies on cost savings from hospice and advance directives are not definitive.
The 3 randomized trials of hospice and advance directives use show no overall
savings, but the authors of a review suggest that the studies were either too
small for confidence in their negative results or their intervention and cost
accounting are flawed.40 In the absence of a definitive study, the
existing data suggest that hospice and advance directives can save between 25%
and 40% of healthcare costs during the last month of life, but far less (and
perhaps nothing) in the 3-12 months before death. Although, these savings are
less than most people anticipate, they do indicate that hospice and advance
directives should be encouraged because they certainly do not cost more and they
provide a means for patients to exercise their autonomy over end-of-life
decisions.40 Finally, several of the promising interventions
described above (e.g., the POLST intervention), are relatively inexpensive. For
example, 500 POLST forms can be ordered from Oregon Health Science University's
Web site41 for less than $100, although the cost of implementing the
POLST program is unknown.
Preventing unwanted aggressive care at the end of life requires
active communication between provider and patient, and effective strategies to
transfer information regarding preferences seamlessly across care venues. The
dominant strategy to improve care in this area over the past 20 years has been
the promotion of advance directives. Although the enthusiasm for advance
directives has not been matched by evidence of their effectiveness, SUPPORT and
other studies have renewed public concern and prompted providers and policy
makers to reexamine advance care planning and strive to improve it. Although we
have found evidence of several potentially promising strategies (perhaps the
most promising of which is the POLST form), the inevitability of death and the
importance patients place on improving end-of-life care point strongly to the
need for further research in this area.
Figure 49.1. POLST Wallet Card instructions
POLST WALLET CARD INSTRUCTIONS
This is an identification wallet card for the Physician Orders for
Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) document. This card is not a
substitute for a completed POLST document. It provides a summary of the
POLST document and is expected to be honored by care providers.
The POLST document and wallet card are completed by the physician. The
physician must sign both the POLST document and the wallet card to
make the wallet card valid.
Instructions continued on other side.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment
Resuscitation (Patient has no pulse and is not
___ Resuscitate ___ Do Not
Medical Interventions (has pulse and/or is breathing):
___ Comfort Measures Only ___ Limited Interventions
___ Advanced Interventions ___ Full Treatment/Resuscitation
___ No antibiotics except if needed for comfort
___ No invasive (IM/IV) antibiotics ___ Full
Instructions continued on other side.
It is recommended that the completed wallet
card be laminated in plastic for durability and to prevent alteration. An existing card should be destroyed if the POLST document is changed. A new wallet card can be completed to match the new physician orders.
CENTER FOR ETHICS IN HEALTH CARE
Oregon Health Sciences University
3181 SW Sam Jackson Park Rd., UHN-86
Portland, Oregon 97201-3098
_ _ _ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Artificially Administered Fluids and Nutrition:
___ No feeding tube/IV fluids ___ Full Treatment
___ No long term feeding tube/IV
___ Patient ___ Health Care Representative
___ Court-appointed Guardian
___ Spouse ___ Other
I have completed the following forms:
___ Advance Directive ___ Court-appointed Guardian
Print name of Physician Phone
Signature of Physician/Date
Center for Ethics in Health Care Developed in conformance
with ORS 127.505 et seq.
© Center for Ethics in Health Care. Reproduced with
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Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine. Fourth ed. New York, NY:
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Advance directives for seriously ill hospitalized patients: effectiveness with
the patient self-determination act and the SUPPORT intervention. SUPPORT
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Risks of Treatment. J Am Geriatr Soc 1997;45:500-7.
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