Checking up on advance care planning - and charting, too


Earlier today our team was consulted to see an 85-year-old gentleman. A request was made that we conduct a family meeting to elicit the goals of care.

The patient had several underlying illnesses including diastolic heart failure, chronic renal insufficiency, and COPD. He was admitted after experiencing a complication from an outpatient procedure aimed at alleviating his chronic low back pain. After paging through his chart, it was clear that he suffered multiple setbacks throughout his admission, and that over the last 12 hours he was rapidly decompensating from hospital-acquired pneumonia and subsequent sepsis.

Though I was quite certain that his family had been approached about treatment goals, there was no documentation of this in the chart or reflection of these goals in the care plan. This was hospital day No. 32.

Two decades are behind us after being confronted with the impressive discord between what patients with advanced illnesses desire for themselves, what we think they want, and the actual care we deliver to them(JAMA 1995;274(20):1591-98). Where are we today when it comes to having dialogue with patients and families about advance care planning (ACP) or code status and our documentation of these critical decisions?

Recently, a study from 12 hospitals spanning Canada set out to see how often seriously ill elderly patients in the hospital were engaged in ACP (JAMA Intern. Med. 2013 April 1 [doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.203]). The mean age of the patients was 80 years, and they all had advanced illnesses that were not expected to be curable. Over 75% of the almost 300 patients enrolled reflected on end-of-life preferences prior to hospitalization, and only 12% were interested in life-prolonging care versus care that focused on quality of life. While in the prehospital period patients are completing advance directives (AD) and identifying a surrogate (48% and 73% respectively), the disconnect comes when looking at whether the documentation in the medical record is in agreement with patient preferences. It is not. The medical record accurately reflects the patient choice only 30% of the time. This led the invited commentary to declare that this disregard be classified as a medical error(JAMA Intern. Med. 2013 April 1 [doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.203]).

Are we the barriers to seeing ACP take place and properly chart the results?

Clearly that is part of the problem (the patient side of this equation will be explored in a future piece). In 2010, a group of hospitalists were audio-recorded during their initial encounter with a newly admitted patient (J. Gen. Intern. Med. 2011 26(4):359-66). During a total of 80 encounters, ACP was brought up less than 20% of the time. When it was addressed, the median length of a code status discussion was 1 minute. Prognosis was mentioned in only one encounter. No physician made a quantitative estimate of prognosis, nor did anyone make recommendations on whether or not CPR was medically appropriate.

Here is a sample from the recording with a hospitalist discussing code status with a patient diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma:

Physician: "... If for some reason you got so sick that your heart stopped beating or your lungs got so sick that they couldn’t breathe on their own, would you want us to attempt to bring you back to life with electricity shocks and other things?"

Patient: "Yes."

Physician: "Yes. Okay. Okay. I think that’s all my questions."

How does the lack of ACP and documentation impact the hospitalist in 2013? Two big-ticket items come to mind: HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) and 30-day readmissions. Both of these will be explored in the next column, along with what we can do to make both immediate and long-term positive impacts on ACP.

Dr. Bekanich and Dr. Fredholm are codirectors of Seton Health Palliative Care, part of the University of Texas Southwestern Residency Programs in Austin.

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