First, and most important, is the question of whether doctors, for the most part, die differently. One of the clearest indicators we have is a survey from Johns Hopkins University. It’s called the Johns Hopkins Precursors Study, and it’s based on the medical histories and decisions of students from the School of Medicine classes of 1948 through 1964 who volunteered to be part of the survey. According to the study, 65 percent of the doctors (or former medical students) had created an advance directive, i.e. a set of legal documents spelling out in advance what sort of end-of-life care they would like. Only about 20 percent of the public does this. When asked whether they would want cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, if they were in a chronic coma, about 90 percent of the Johns Hopkins doctors said no. Only about 25 percent of the public gives the same answer.[…] My sense that there’s a yearning among ordinary patients to have more peaceful deaths has been echoed in the research of University of Wisconsin-Madison nursing professor Karen Kehl. In an article called “Moving Toward Peace: An Analysis of the Concept of a Good Death,” Kehl analyzed a collection of relevant articles and, based on their contents, ranked the attributes of an ideal death as follows: being in control, being comfortable, having a sense of closure, having one’s values affirmed, trusting in care providers, and recognizing impending death. Hospitals cannot help with most of these things. Unfortunately, most patients do not see their wishes fulfilled. A 1998 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society looked at Medicare patients and found that, while most said they preferred to die at home, most died in hospitals.
[…] Often, I noted, family members or medical staff effectively override the wishes of a dying patient. The studies I’ve found on this suggest that family plays a particularly big role in taking things in an unintended direction, especially when there’s nothing in writing. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that most patients and families agree in theory that patients should make their own end-of-life decisions, but in practice about half of families override the stated preferences of patients. They have disagreements about the use of life-sustaining measures, and they lack written documents to resolve the matter. In contrast, a 2010 study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that people with advance directives usually receive the care they’ve chosen.
Editor’s Note: Last year, Dr. Ken Murray wrote an essay called “How Doctors Die” summarizing the differences between doctors’ and patients’ last days of treatment. The feedback prompted Murray to annotate the personal essay in a follow up piece. — AVF