An ongoing dialogue on HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases,
February 15th, 2015
Should Antibiotics be Part of End-of-Life Care?
There’s been some truly outstanding work done recently on end-of-life care, and how we deal with it — or more accurately, how we typically don’t deal with it until the very last moment, at which time often many unfortunate decisions and events occur. Here are three I can strongly recommend:
- Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is probably the most widely read book among my circle of friends right now, as many of us have parents of a certain age. Chast is a cartoonist best known for her distinctive squiggly cartoons in the The New Yorker — here’s one of my favorites — and is already familiar to many ID doctors because of her morbid fascination with dreadful diseases, some of them infections. But this extended memoir about her aging parents is a remarkably ambitious book, by turns funny (of course), moving, and ultimately heartbreaking, especially when touching on the fraught relationship she had with her mother.
- If drawings aren’t your thing, then give Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal a shot. In his usual clear prose — which miraculously reads neither overly technical to the lay public or overly simple to health care providers — he deftly lays out what many of the challenges are in the care of both the elderly and the terminally ill. For example, how can we negotiate the conflict between personal freedom versus safety in our loved ones who have such a limited time to live? If 90-year-old Uncle Milton with severe congestive heart failure wants to eat pickles, but pickles contain too much salt for his diet, should we stop him? The recent Frontline about Atul (we’re on a first name basis, brush with greatness) and his book make me hope that his sensible voice will lead to progress in this difficult part of health care.
- Finally, if you’re looking for a terrific podcast, check out this Radiolab piece called Dead Reckoning. The first part is about surviving rabies — good stuff for ID doctors, and yes, we’re that bizarre — but the piece finishes in more familiar territory, dealing with medical options at the end of life. In a section called “The Bitter End”, it cites a now famous study done of Hopkins med school graduates, demonstrating that doctors say they would forego end-of-life treatments if they had an incurable brain disease (something akin to dementia) — a big contrast with the people interviewed on the street, most of whom want all this stuff. The end-of-life treatments these doctors considered are shown in the figure below:
Note the ninth one on this list — antibiotics — and consider a scenario that no doubt will be familiar to doctors and nurses the world over, and not just to ID doctors: The patient who has metastatic cancer, or advanced dementia, or irreversible advanced heart or lung disease, and the decision has been made to withhold CPR, mechanical ventilation, tube feeding, and dialysis.
But antibiotics? They often remain an option to the very end, frequently in the face of other conditions with terrible prognoses and little chance for reversal. Those recurrent urinary tract infections, aspiration pneumonias, infected pressure sores, and other indignities of our failing bodies can be treated with antibiotics (though with progressively less effect) — but to what end?
So read the case, take the poll, then listen to the Radiolab piece.
A 94-year-old woman with advanced dementia is referred to the hospital from her nursing home because of fever and a change in mental status. At baseline, she can sit in a chair but cannot walk, feed, or bathe herself; she can respond to simple questions, but has little spontaneous speech. She has an existing DNR order — no CPR or intubation. There have been two admissions to the hospital over the past six months (pneumonia, urinary tract infection), after which she returned to the nursing home. In the emergency room, her evaluation is notable for a fever and somnolence. The urinalysis shows 50-100 WBC. The health care proxy, who lives in another state, is unavailable.