Thursday, March 26, 2020

End-of-Life Implications of the Coronavirus Pandemic

Sid Roberts, MD
Lufkin Radiation Oncologist

Member, Texas Medical Association

We are early in this coronavirus game of social distancing and hand washing. We haven’t quite become weary of it. We joke about it. And yet, I am starting to see – among my friends – some very real concern about our elder parents and grandparents. But we don’t allow ourselves to linger on those thoughts much. We should.

The United States has been accused of being late to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, late to test our US population compared to other countries (South Korea, for example), and “doomed”  in our response. Even so, we are just beginning the initial rise of the now well-known bell curve of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Known cases are doubling every day, it seems. Deaths are increasing as well.

As a cancer physician with additional hospice and palliative medicine (end-of-life care) certification, I view the coronavirus pandemic with increasingly darkened lenses. Coronavirus is a new and immediate threat to life, and we are not ready for what that means. If we don’t succeed in slowing the spread of coronavirus and suppressing new cases – now widely known as flattening the curve – 2.2 million people in the US could die.  We are not talking openly – publicly –about how we are going to handle this massive number of deaths with COVID-19.

If the coronavirus epidemic is as bad as some predict it will be, discussions about end-of-life care with this disease will soon become front and center. There may not be enough ventilators for everyone who “needs” ventilator support. Italy has been forced to triage sick coronavirus patients based on age, given that the death rate among the elderly is so high. Italian doctors have admitted that there were simply too many patients for each one of them to receive adequate care. They describe a “tsunami” of patients and a more than 7% death rate (though researchers have lowered the calculated death rate in Wuhan, where the pandemic started, to 1.4% ). Preliminary outcomes of patients with COVID-19 in the US show death is highest in persons aged greater than or equal to 85, ranging from 10% to 27%, followed by 3% to 11% among persons aged 65–84 years.

The Italian society of anesthesiologists issued fifteen recommendations of ethical and medical criteria to consider if ICU beds are exhausted, saying doctors may have to adopt more wartime triage criteria of gauging who has the best chance of survival versus “first come, first served.”   Those who are chronically ill with pre-existing lung disease, even if they survive a serious coronavirus infection, are likely to be left with even further reduced lung function and poorer quality of life.

Unlike a localized disaster – most memorably Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans in 2005, where healthcare decision-making received intense scrutiny and prompted legal action  – we are experiencing a global, acute healthcare emergency that may require historic moral and ethical decisions that impact who lives and who dies. We will be rationing healthcare on the fly. Are we ready for that? As family members? As a community? As a nation? Are our hospices ready for the number of patients needing immediate, short-duration, and contagion-related end-of-life care?

Perhaps the most terrifying aspect of the coronavirus epidemic in countries where death has become frighteningly common is the loneliness of the death. Hospitals in the US are already limiting or even forbidding visitors. In Italy, seriously ill coronavirus patients are isolated from family and often die alone. Families are not allowed to have a proper burial, and not just due to restrictions on gathering – morgues have an enormous backlog to work through. That is certainly not what we would call a “good death” and not what those of us in the hospice care field want for any patient.

President Trump has labeled himself a wartime president, declaring we are at war with an invisible enemy. "Now it's our time. We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together," he said.  What is not stated – and what I am afraid will happen – is the wartime sacrifice analogy will extend to real lives lost. In an ironic twist of fate, it very well may be that the remnants of the Greatest Generation are once again on the front lines. Even down to the Baby Boomers, our nation’s elders will bear the brunt of the coronavirus disease, certainly, but likely the financial catastrophe surrounding the pandemic as well. (I wonder if the economic collapse will kill as many or more people than coronavirus does.)

The time is now to have discussions with our older/elderly parents and grandparents about the very real risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19. Wills need to be written and advance directives and durable powers of attorney completed now – before our loved ones hit the hospitals. This is not morbid; it is both pragmatic and necessary. If we emerge from this battle relatively unscathed, we are no worse off for having had the discussions and done the planning. Patients and families should be driving end-of-life care decisions. We owe it to our hospitals and healthcare workers not to overburden the system with trying to care for those who neither want nor would benefit from aggressive measures.

Dr. Sid Roberts is a radiation oncologist at the Temple Cancer Center in Lufkin and contributing columnist for The Lufkin Daily News. Previous columns can be found on Dr. Roberts' blog.

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