Sunday, January 17, 2016

What doctors don’t learn about death and dying: Atul Gawande

"We had no difficulty explaining the specific dangers of various treatment options, but we never really touched on the reality of his disease. His oncologists, radiation therapists, surgeons and other doctors had all seen him through months of treatments for a problem that they knew could not be cured. We could never bring ourselves to discuss the larger truth about his condition or the ultimate limits of our capabilities, let alone what might matter most to him as he neared the end of his life. If he was pursuing a delusion, so were we. Here he was in the hospital, partially paralyzed from a cancer that had spread throughout his body. The chances that he could return to anything like the life he had even a few weeks earlier were zero. But admitting this and helping him cope with it seemed beyond us. We offered no acknowledgment or comfort or guidance. We just had another treatment he could undergo. Maybe something very good would result.

We did little better than Ivan Ilyich’s primitive nineteenth-century doctors — worse, actually, given the new forms of physical torture we’d inflicted on our patient. It is enough to make you wonder, who are the primitive ones?

Modern scientific capability has profoundly altered the course of human life. People live longer and better than at any other time in history. But scientific advances have turned the processes of aging and dying into medical experiences, matters to be managed by health care professionals. And we in the medical world have proved alarmingly unprepared for it.

As recently as 1945, most deaths occurred in the home. By the 1980s, just 17 percent did.

This reality has been largely hidden, as the final phases of life become less familiar to people. As recently as 1945, most deaths occurred in the home. By the 1980s, just 17 percent did. Those who somehow did die at home likely died too suddenly to make it to the hospital — say, from a massive heart attack, stroke or violent injury — or were too isolated to get somewhere that could provide help. Across not just the United States but also the entire industrialized world, the experience of advanced aging and death has shifted to hospitals and nursing homes."





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