By Nancy Valko
In a 2016 study “What does “futility” mean? An empirical study of doctors’ perceptions” in the Medical Journal of Australia distilled this definition from the majority of responses:
Futile treatment is treatment that has only a very low chance of achieving meaningful benefit for the patient in terms of:
improving quality of life;
sufficiently prolonging life of acceptable quality; or
bringing benefits that outweigh the burdens of treatment
Alarmingly, the article also states: “Doctors may reach a view that treatment is futile, informed by their definition of futility and clinical indicators such as functional status, disease severity, and age.” (Emphasis added.)
Over 10 years ago, I wrote an article “Futility Policies and the Duty to Die” about little-known futility policies being promoted, even in Catholic hospitals. These policies allow doctors and ethics committees to overrule patients’ or families’ decisions to continue care or treatment when a person’s prognosis or “quality of life” was considered too poor.
However, a couple of weeks ago, a horrified nurse friend showed me two health care directive she recently received as a patient. One was from a Catholic health care facility and the other was a standard Missouri durable power of attorney directive . The wording in both made her question whether such futility policies were now being incorporated into such directives.
I understand her concern.
THE CATHOLIC DURABLE POWER OF ATTORNEY FOR HEALTH CARE DIRECTIVE
A person signs such a directive in order to have a family member or other trusted person make health care decisions when they are incapacitated. An legally incapacitated person is defined as a “Person unable to make rational decisions or engage in responsible actions. Mental and/or physical deficiency, disability, illness, drug use causing temporary or permanent impairment.”
“Living wills” and other advance health care directives, invented by so-called “right to die” groups, claimed to give people the power to choose at the end of life
Remembering the prolonged dehydration deaths of Nancy Cruzan and Terri Schiavo, two non-terminally ill but severely brain-injured women said to be in the so-called “persistent vegetative state”, a person might sign a directive but want to prevent such a terrible death for himself or herself.
However, while this Catholic directive has a section to make such a decision, it also an asterisked section attached to both withdrawal and refusal of withdrawal:
I DO NOT AUTHORIZE my Agent/Proxy to direct a health care provider to withhold or withdraw artificially supplied nutrition and hydration (including tube feeding of food and water) as permitted by law.*
*(In a XXXXX health care facility, nutrition and hydration may be withheld or withdrawn if I have an irreversible condition which is end-state or terminal AND if the means of preserving my life have likely risks and burdens which outweigh the expected benefits or are disproportionate without a reasonable hope of benefit.) (Emphasis added)
Using such terms as “end-state or terminal” could, for example, apply not only to a “persistent vegetative state” but also to Alzheimer’s or other dementia. “Artificially supplied” could encompass a simple IV while the asterisked section inexplicably does not even include the words “artificially supplied” before the food and water. Along with using terms like “disproportionate without a reasonable hope of benefit” without stating who makes that determination or what the criteria is for benefit, the average person could be understandably confused in a real life situation.
THE MISSOURI DURABLE POWER OF ATTORNEY DIRECTIVE
Many, if not most, Missouri hospitals have this directive.
This directive has a section stating:
If I am persistently unconscious or there is no reasonable expectation of my recovery from a seriously incapacitating or terminal illness or condition, I direct that all of the life-prolonging procedures that I have initialed below be withheld or withdrawn. (Emphasis added)
This list includes not only “artificially supplied nutrition and hydration” but also antibiotics, CPR and “all other life-prolonging medical or surgical procedures that are merely intended to keep me alive without reasonable hope of improving my condition or curing my illness or injury.” (Emphasis added) Note that, according to the directive, a person need not have a terminal illness or be in a coma to qualify for withdrawal.
The next section can seem reassuring if a person has qualms about a decision to withdraw treatment or care being made too quickly or influenced by age or disability. However, the directive only states that such treatments or care may be tried-at the doctor’s discretion-for an undefined “reasonable”period of time before withdrawal. Unfortunately, this section also includes automatic consent to pain relief, even in dosages that can suppress breathing and appetite as in terminal sedation:
MO Bar: 3. However, if my physician believes that any life-prolonging procedure may lead to a recovery significant to me as communicated by me or my Agent to my physician, then I direct my physician to try the treatment for a reasonable period of time. If it does not cause my condition to improve, I direct the treatment to be withdrawn even if it shortens my life. I also direct that I be given medical treatment to relieve pain or to provide comfort, even if such treatment might shorten or suppress my appetite or my breathing, or be habit-forming. (Emphasis added)
The Catholic health directive also includes this section, almost verbatim.
With the help of the media, mentally disabling conditions like Alzheimer’s are often portrayed to the public as a fate worse than death and a terrible burden on a family. Tragically, the “right to die” mentality has led many people to conclude that they should die if they develop such conditions or, if dying, that their death may be accelerated to spare their families.
As a nurse who has seen the problems with advance directives firsthand, I helped design my own durable power of attorney advance directive without exemptions or checkoffs that could be misused or misinterpreted. I also educated my husband and family about the medical ethics involved.
As I wrote in my blog Living with “Living Wills”, there are better alternatives available to the standard kinds of advance directives even though no directive is foolproof.
Adequately informed consent is required for legal consent to surgery. Shouldn’t advance directives that involve life or death be held to the same standard before signing?
Nancy Valko was a speaker at the 2015 MCFL Convention. This article originally appeared at NancyValko.com and is reprinted with permission.