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The cost of not talking about death to dying patients

The cost of not talking about death to dying patients
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Will you know when it is your time to die? It is a question that has permeated my mind since July 14, 2017. This was the day my mother died. It was a sad day, but it pales in comparison to the months preceding it. A breast cancer that had returned aggressively, a hasty port placement to receive chemotherapy that was too late  and an ICU admission that began many futile interventions that never saved her life, but prolonged my mother’s suffering.

As a registered nurse, I watched a scene unfold that I swore to myself I would never let happen to anyone I loved. Yet, there I was listening to an oncologist discuss a 30 percent chance she would respond to chemo (which did not mean she would be cured) and choosing this inappropriate treatment for my critically-ill mother. I was party to these decisions when my mother couldn’t make them and when she made some recovery in her mental status, she also chose to continue treatments.

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Were these decisions well founded? They were missing a key piece of information, that even with my training, I failed to see. My mother was dying. She was dying and none of my mother’s care providers were able to say those words.

Would my family have chosen a different path for my mother, if there had been a more explicit conversation? Resoundingly, yes. If my mother’s health-care providers would have had a deliberate discussion about her impending death my family would never have chosen chemotherapy and instead chose to initiate hospice care.

As a nurse, I have a duty to advocate for patients. Advocating can take many forms, but most often, it is helping patients navigate the complexities of the health-care system as well as explaining the meaning of test results, procedures, and diagnoses. Often, answering the question “What does this mean for me?” In my own practice, I have helped many patients understand the life changes needed to manage, diabetes, heart failure, and coronary artery disease.

But, like the nurses who provided care for my mother, I struggle having explicit conversations about dying with my patients. This does not appear to be an isolated phenomenon. In a 2018 study, researchers in Australia surveyed acute care and critical care nurses to assess their understanding and utilization of end-of-life discussions and care planning. They found that nurses’ own knowledge and rates of participation are low when it comes to end-of-life care.

On the other side of this, is a patient who may not be making a well-informed decision, because they don’t understand their disease is life-limiting or that they are dying. When the focus is shifted from “fighting to live” to “death is imminent,” other care decisions can be made by these patients. They can choose hospice care. Patients who have a prognosis of 6 months or less are eligible.

In hospice, care is shifted from procedures, tests and medications that can cause discomfort or pain for the patient, to comfort measures that improve the quality of one’s last days. Medicare, who pays for this benefit, found that only 12-25 percent of beneficiaries’ days during the last year of life are being spent in hospice. Are we having these conversations with our patients too late? I have coordinated and provided care for patients who only hours before their death have been enrolled in hospice, even though their diagnosis had been terminal and had been known by the patient’s providers for months.

To be sure, there are nurses who are adept at having these difficult discussions about death with patients and their families. But it is not a skill that comes easy to the majority of the profession. Fortunately, there are resources available to help nurses facilitate these conversations in an effective way.

The End-of-Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC) project, for example, is a national education initiative that seeks to educate nurses on better end-of-life care. Their curriculum includes coursework on how to lead effective communication during end-of-life care.  

Perhaps, we need to re-evaluate how we train our nurses to have conversations about death and dying. Have those who are experts at these discussions share their wisdom and teach nurses how to have these conversations in an empathetic and impactful way so that patients can receive the comfort and dignity of hospice care in a timely manner. If we can make these changes in our communication with patients and their families, perhaps, one day we will all know when it is our time to die.

Colleen Chierici BSN, RN works at Rush Oak Park Hospital as a telemetry RN and is the president of Rush Oak Park’s Shared Governance Organization. She is a 2018 Illinois Nurse leader fellow and a 2018 Public Voices fellow. Chierici is also a member of the Illinois Kidney Advocacy Council, where she advocates for legislation protecting living kidney donors, kidney recipients and those living with kidney disease.