Medical staffs seldom receive training on advance directives — which can lead to catastrophic error. Physician leaders must be aware.
“Don’t resuscitate this patient; he has a living will,” the nurse told Monica Williams-Murphy, MD, handing her a document.
Williams-Murphy looked at the sheet bearing the signature of the unconscious 78-year-old man, who’d been rushed from a nursing home to the emergency room.
“Do everything possible,” it read, with a check approving cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
The nurse’s mistake was based on a misguided belief that living wills automatically include “do not resuscitate” orders. Working quickly, Williams-Murphy revived the patient, who had a urinary tract infection and recovered after a few days in the hospital.
Unfortunately, misunderstandings involving documents meant to guide end-of-life decision-making are “surprisingly common,” said Williams-Murphy, medical director of advance-care planning and end-of-life education for Huntsville Hospital Health System in Alabama.
But health systems and state regulators don’t systematically track mix-ups of this kind, and they receive little attention amid the push to encourage older adults to document their end-of-life preferences, experts acknowledge. As a result, information about the potential for patient harm is scarce.
A report out of Pennsylvania, which has the nation’s most robust system for monitoring patient safety events, treats mix-ups involving end-of-life documents as medical errors — a novel approach. It found that in 2016, Pennsylvania health care facilities reported nearly 100 events relating to patients’ “code status” — their wish to be resuscitated or not, should their hearts stop beating and they stop breathing. In 29 cases, patients were resuscitated against their wishes. In two cases, patients weren’t resuscitated despite making it clear they wanted this to happen.
The rest of the cases were “near misses” — problems caught before they had a chance to cause permanent harm.
Most likely, this is an undercount, said Regina Hoffman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority, adding that she was unaware of similar data from any other state.
Asked to describe a near miss, Hoffman, co-author of the report, said: “Perhaps I’m a patient who’s come to the hospital for elective surgery and I have a DNR order in my [medical] chart. After surgery, I develop a serious infection and a resident [physician] finds my DNR order. He assumes this means I’ve declined all kinds of treatment, until a colleague explains that this isn’t the case.”
The problem, Hoffman explained, is that doctors and nurses receive little, if any, training in understanding and interpreting living wills, DNR orders and Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment forms, either on the job or in medical or nursing school.
Communication breakdowns and a pressure-cooker environment in emergency departments, where life-or-death decisions often have to be made within minutes, also contribute to misunderstandings, other experts said.
Research by Ferdinando Mirarchi, DO, FAAEM, FACEP, medical director of the department of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Hamot in Erie, Pennsylvania, suggests that the potential for confusion surrounding end-of-life documents is widespread. In various studies, he has asked medical providers how they would respond to hypothetical situations involving patients with critical and terminal illnesses.
In one study, for instance, he described a 46-year-old woman brought to the ER with a heart attack and suddenly goes into cardiac arrest. Although she’s otherwise healthy, she has a living will refusing all potentially lifesaving medical interventions. What would you do, he asked more than 700 physicians in an internet survey?
Only 43 percent of those doctors said they would intervene to save her life — a troubling figure, Mirarchi said. Since this patient didn’t have a terminal condition, her living will didn’t apply to the situation at hand and every physician should have been willing to offer aggressive treatment, he explained.
In another study, Mirarchi described a 70-year-old man with diabetes and cardiac disease who had a POLST form indicating he didn’t want cardiopulmonary resuscitation but agreeing to a limited set of other medical interventions, including defibrillation. Yet 75 percent of 223 emergency physicians surveyed said they wouldn’t have pursued defibrillation if the patient had a cardiac arrest.
One issue here: Physicians assumed that defibrillation is part of cardiopulmonary resuscitation. That’s a mistake: They’re separate interventions. Another issue: Physicians are often unsure what patients really want when one part of a POLST form says “do nothing” (declining CPR) and another part says “do something” (permitting other interventions).
Mirarchi’s work involves hypotheticals, not real-life situations. But it highlights significant practical confusion about end-of-life documents, said Scott Halpern, MD, PhD, M.Bioethics, the director of the Palliative and Advanced Illness Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Attention to these problems is important, but shouldn’t be overblown, cautioned Arthur Derse, MD, JD, the director of the center for bioethics and medical humanities at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “Are there errors of misunderstanding or miscommunication? Yes. But you’re more likely to have your wishes followed with one of these documents than without one,” he said.
Derse advises patients to have ongoing discussions about your end-of-life preferences with your physician, surrogate decision-maker, if you have one, and family, especially when your health status changes. Without these conversations, documents can be difficult to interpret.