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Americans are treated and overtreated to death

Marilynn Marchione | 6/29/2010, 7:27 p.m.

The doctors finally let Rosaria Vandenberg go home.

For the first time in months, she was able to touch her 2-year-old daughter who had been afraid of the tubes and machines in the hospital.

The little girl climbed up onto her mother’s bed, surrounded by family photos, toys and the comfort of home. They shared one last tender moment together before Vandenberg slipped back into unconsciousness.

Vandenberg, 32, died the next day.

That precious time at home could have come sooner if the family had known how to talk about alternatives to aggressive treatment, said Vandenberg’s sister-in-law, Alexandra Drane.

Instead, Vandenberg, a pharmacist in Franklin, Mass., had endured two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation for an incurable brain tumor before she died in July 2004.

“We would have had a very different discussion about that second surgery and chemotherapy. We might have just taken her home and stuck her in a beautiful chair outside under the sun and let her gorgeous little daughter play around her — not just torture her” in the hospital, Drane said.

Americans increasingly are treated to death, spending more time in hospitals in their final days, trying last-ditch treatments that often buy only weeks of time, and racking up bills that have made medical care a leading cause of bankruptcies.

More than 80 percent of people who die in the United States have a long, progressive illness such as cancer, heart failure or Alzheimer’s disease.

More than 80 percent of such patients say they want to avoid hospitalization and intensive care when they are dying, according to the Dartmouth Atlas Project, which tracks health care trends.

Yet the numbers show that’s not what is happening:

— The average time spent in hospice and palliative care, which stresses comfort and quality of life once an illness is incurable, is falling because people are starting it too late. In 2008, one-third of people who received hospice care had it for a week or less, says the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

— Hospitalizations during the last six months of life are rising: from 1,302 per 1,000 Medicare recipients in 1996 to 1,441 in 2005, Dartmouth reports. Treating chronic illness in the last two years of life gobbles up nearly one-third of all Medicare dollars.

“People are actually now sicker as they die,” and some find that treatments become a greater burden than the illness was,” said Dr. Ira Byock, director of palliative care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. Families may push for treatment, but “there are worse things than having someone you love die,” he said.

Gail Sheehy, author of the “Passages” books, learned that as her husband, New York magazine founder Clay Felker, spent 17 years fighting various cancers. On New Year’s Day 2007, they waited eight hours in an emergency room for yet another CT scan until Felker looked at her and said, “No more hospitals.”

“I just put a cover over him and wheeled him out of there with needles still in his arms,” Sheehy said.