When caring for patients on an inpatient basis — that is, patients who are admitted to the hospital as opposed to seeing patients in clinic — there are many moments when you must have crucial conversations. For the most part, medical students are shielded from needing to carry out these conversations. As a medical student, I may have asked patients on admission about their code status. However, I never wrote orders based on my conversations. And if a patient stated that they did not want to be resuscitated in the event that their heart stopped or they could not breathe on their own, I always told the intern or resident so that they could confirm and document the conversation. I think it’s appropriate to allow students to begin asking these types of questions; I also think it’s appropriate (and legal) to have residents/interns confirm and do their own asking when a medical student initiates discussion of these topics.
There are other conversations that, unfortunately, become more familiar as one gets accustomed to inpatient medicine. The conversation with patients and families regarding goals of care is probably as heavy as it gets. At times, this conversation spans days. When taking care of patients who are all-of-a-sudden critically ill, it is often extremely difficult for this conversation to take place and families often need to be walked through the reality of the situation and the grim prognosis. Even with patients who are chronically ill, these conversations may take time.
One of the key pieces of information during these conversations is the severity of the condition and the prognosis. In my short experience I have found that patients and families react differently. Some will cling to your every word, writing down the way you say things and even making sure to write down your name. Others listen with a blank stare; they make you wonder if the are even listening. It is both the honor and the burden of the physician to accurately and effectively convey this information.
Unforunately, it isn’t always a burden we carry well. Too often, I hear doctors (myself included) described the state of a patient as “very sick.” I don’t know if there is a good answer to why we, as a profession, do this. Perhaps it is easier to say someone is “very sick” rather than that they “are dying.” Perhaps some of us view death as the doctor’s ultimate defeat — something that we sometimes refuse to admit. Perhaps we have our own personal issues with death and dying (consciously or sub-consciously) and treating a dying patient forces us to confront, or at least acknowledge these issues (consciously or sub-consciously). Regardless of the “why,” I think we ought to do a better job of communicating to families and patients.
I remember calling a patient’s daughter. I remember telling her that her father was “very sick.” As she tried to grapple with the words I were telling her, she asked me, “Is he dying?” As I sat holding the telphone handset to my ear I finally answered, “Yes, he is dying. I cannot say when. I cannot tell you if it is days or weeks right now. But he is dying. He is getting weaker everyday.” Five days later, after I had left the service, I learned that my patient had passed. And in finding out about his death, I found solace in the fact that I had done what I could to prepare the family.
As difficult as it is to hear that your loved one is dying, I think we owe it to our patients and their families to be prepared for whatever comes next — at least what we think is most likely according to our education and experience. Some patients and their families understand what “very sick” means. Others don’t. The words we use, though, are not important. What is important — what is crucial — is that we communicate effectively with our patients and their families.