Dr. Stahl gives talk at neonatal nurses conference

Devan Stahl photoOn April 30, Center Assistant Professor Dr. Devan Stahl gave a plenary address at the State of Wisconsin Association of Neonatal Nurses Annual Education Conference, titled “Palliative Care and End of Life Ethics in the NICU.” Using case studies, she discussed the ethical and medical complexities surrounding decisions for the treatment of severely ill infants, strategies for interacting with families who request inappropriate or non-beneficial treatment for their child, and the obligations of care providers to protect the best interests of infants. 150 nurses from Wisconsin and surrounding states were in attendance.

Dr. Stahl and co-authors published in ‘Journal of Pain and Symptom Management’

Devan Stahl photoCenter Assistant Professor Dr. Devan Stahl is co-author of an article published in the February 2018 issue of the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management. “Addressing a Patient’s Hope for a Miracle” was written by Myrick C. Shinall Jr. (Vanderbilt University Medical Center Section of Palliative Care), Dr. Stahl, and Trevor M. Bibler (Baylor College of Medicine).

Abstract: Ill patients may make decisions to continue aggressive life-prolonging care based on hope for a miraculous recovery, and clinicians can find goals of care discussions with these patients extremely challenging. Thus, palliative care providers may be asked to help in these discussions. The concept of “miracle” can express a multitude of hopes, fears, and religious commitments. Effective, sensitive engagement requires the palliative care provider to attend to these variegated hopes, fears, and commitments. This case presents a typology of ways patients express hope for a miracle along with analysis of the motivations and beliefs underlying such hopes and suggestions for tailored responses by palliative care providers.

The full text is available online through Elsevier/Journal of Pain and Symptom Management (MSU Library or other institutional access may be required to view this article).

Can Big Data and AI Improve End-of-Life Care?

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Tom Tomlinson, PhD

A recently reported study claims to more accurately predict how much longer patients will live. Researchers at Stanford University assigned a neural network computer the task of training itself to develop an artificial intelligence model that would predict if a patient would die within 3-12 months of any given date. The computer trained on the EMR records of 177,011 Stanford patients, 12,587 of whom had a recorded date of death. The model was validated and tested on another 44,273 patient records. You can find the wonky details here.

The model can predict with 90% accuracy whether a patient will die within the window.

Now this is a lot better than individual physicians typically do. It’s not just that such predictions are fraught with uncertainty, given how many complex, interacting factors are at work that only a computer can handle. If uncertainty were the only factor, one would expect physicians’ prognostic errors to be randomly distributed. But they are not. Clinicians overwhelmingly err on the optimistic side, so the pessimists among them turn out to be right more often.

The study takes accurately predicting death to be a straightforwardly useful thing. It gives patients, families and clinicians more reliable, trustworthy information that is of momentous significance, better informing critical questions. Will I be around for my birthday? Is it time to get palliative or hospice care involved?

The study’s authors are particularly hopeful that the use of this model will prompt more timely use of palliative care services, and discourage overuse of chemotherapy, hospitalization, and admission to intensive care units in the last months of life—all well-documented problems in the care of terminally ill people, especially those dying of cancer. So this is a potentially very significant use of “big data” AI research methods to address major challenges in end-of-life care.

But making real progress toward these goals will take a lot more than this model can deliver.

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Image description: A graphic on a blue gradient background shows the silhouette of an individual in the foreground containing colorful computer motherboard graphics. In the background are silhouettes of twelve more individuals standing in a line and containing black and white computer motherboard graphics. Image source: Maziani Sabudin/Flickr Creative Commons.

The first question is how it could inform decisions about what to do next. The limitation here is that the model uses events from my medical history occurring prior to the time it’s asked to predict my survival. Perhaps the decision I’m facing is whether to go for another round of chemotherapy for metastatic cancer; or whether instead to enter a Phase 3 clinical trial for a new therapeutic agent. The question (one might think) is what each option will add to my life expectancy.

Now if the training database had some number of patients who took that particular chemotherapy option, then that factor would have somehow been accounted for when the computer built the model. Assuming the model reliably predicted the mortality of those earlier patients, all we’d need to do is add that factor to my medical record as a hypothetical, run the model again, and see whether the prognosis changed.

But is there something about the chemotherapy being offered that is different than the regimens on which the computer trained? Then the model will not be able to assess the significance of that difference for the patient’s survival. Obviously, this limitation will be even more radical for the experimental treatment option. So in the individual case, the model’s helpfulness in making prospective treatment decisions could be quite limited. It would have to be supplemented, or even supplanted, by old-fashioned clinical judgment, or alternative algorithmic prognostic tools.

This may be one reason the study authors imagine a different use: identify patients with 3-12 months life expectancy and refer them for a palliative care consultation. The idea is to push against the tendency already noted for physicians to wait too long in making palliative care or hospice referrals. Assuming the model is running all the time in the background, it could trigger an alert to the attending physician, or even an automatic palliative care referral for all those the model flagged.

Now, in my ethics consultation experience, getting an appropriate palliative care or hospice referral only one month preceding death would be a stunning accomplishment, let alone three months prior. But the key word here is “appropriate,” since the need for palliative care is not dictated by life-expectancy alone, but more importantly, by symptoms. Not every patient with a projected life expectancy between 3 and 12 months will be suffering from symptoms requiring palliative care expertise to manage. Automatic referrals requiring palliative care evaluations could overwhelm thinly-staffed palliative care services, drawing time and resources away from patients in greater need.

Part of the problem here is the imprecision of the model, and the effects this may have on patient and provider acceptance of the results. A 90% chance of death within 3-12 months sounds ominous, but it leaves plenty of wiggle-room for unrealistic optimism: lots of patients will be confident that they are going to fall at the further end of that range, or that they will be among the 10% of cases the model got wrong altogether. And it’s not just patients who will be so affected. Their treating physicians will also be reluctant to conclude that there is nothing left to do, and that everything they did to the patient before has been in vain. Patients aren’t the only ones prone to denial.

And the nature of the AI-driven prognosis will make it more difficult to respond to patient skepticism with an explanation anyone can understand. As the authors point out, all we really know is that the model can predict within some range of probability. We don’t know why or how it’s done so. The best we can do is remove a feature of interest from the data (e.g., time since diagnosis), rerun the model, and see what effect it has on the probability for the patient’s prognosis. But the model offers no reasons to explain why there was a change, or why it was of any particular magnitude. The workings of Artificial Intelligence, in other words, are not always intelligible. Acceptable explanations will still be left to the clinician and their patient.

Tom Tomlinson photoTom Tomlinson, PhD, is Director and Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences, College of Human Medicine, and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, March 8, 2018. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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Dr. Eijkholt presents at Upper Great Lakes Palliative Care & Hospice Conference

Marleen Eijkholt photoCenter Assistant Professor Dr. Marleen Eijkholt recently traveled to Marquette, MI to present at the Upper Great Lakes Palliative Care & Hospice Conference, hosted by Lake Superior Life Care & Hospice.

The conference brought together a wide variety of providers, including home health and hospice providers. Dr Eijkholt’s presentations touched on two controversial areas, through a mix of practical case samples and some theory. Her first talk, “Ethical dilemmas in advance care planning–Mom isn’t herself,” sought to engage participants with the different advance care planning options in Michigan and throughout the U.S. The presentation explored the challenges that come with advance care planning instruments and their application. In Dr. Eijkholt’s second presentation, “Mom wants to die–Professional and personal ethical dilemmas at the end of life,” the participants discussed different end-of-life scenarios, patient perspectives, and wishes. The presentation and discussion also explored distinctions and strategies for dealing with patient requests at the end of life.

Medicine’s Collusion with False Hopes: Rights to try, false hope, and the spine of the profession

Bioethics in the News logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series

By Marleen Eijkholt, JD, PhD

Imagine your loved one is dying. You have heard about an intervention out there, somewhere, that could help—you think. Not trying this intervention for and on your loved one would seem insane, as who knows, there could be a chance for a cure. Without trying it, your loved one’s death is certain. But by trying it—who knows—this intervention might be the miracle for your beloved. Why not try?

Though death ultimately takes all, most of us resist a final exit for both our loved ones and ourselves. Pursuits to forestall death can take the shape of family’s quests for experimental treatments, like in the Charlie Gard case, or they can come by insisting on a “full code” for a terminally ill loved one who is on their deathbed. This rescue impulse (by unbridled hope) encourages health care professionals as well to marshal all available resources in attempts to circumvent the inevitable.

Where “right to try” creates false hope, I submit, however, that that the health care profession (HCP) has an obligation to avoid collaborating in, participating, propagating or augmenting false hope. By not speaking up against such requests, health care providers precipitate a harm, i.e., the false hope harm (FHH). As such, the HCP should show courage, and show spine to resist more broadly unreasonable “rights” to try.

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Image description: an illustration depicts a white whale above a sea of orange waves. The whale is in a net that is being held up by orange birds. The background is blue. Image source: Matthias Töpfer/Flickr Creative Commons

I call for an active stance from the HCP against populist legislative initiatives, such as the latest U.S. Senate’s “right to try” bill. In the same way, I call for an active stance against unrealistic patient and family requests for rights to try, including resuscitative efforts in terminally ill patients or other demands for non-beneficial treatments. My position thus supports the providers’ prudent approach in the tragic Charlie Gard case, as described at the end of this post. The FHH can best be countered by courageous advocacy from the profession.

Earlier last month, the U.S. Senate passed a “right to try” bill, and if the House approves this legislation, the bill would allow terminally ill individuals to access experimental drugs not yet available on the regular market. Once a drug has passed Phase I drug testing, an individual could petition the pharmaceutical company for access to that experimental drug. This bill also provides protection for pharmaceutical firms. The legislation restricts the FDA from using right-to-try-related adverse outcomes in determining a drug’s safety. Accordingly, the bill limits “penalizing” pharmaceutical companies for their “generosity” in offering access.

A discouraging stance against “right to try” legislation is tricky. It is telling that “right to try” legislation has been dubbed “feel good” legislation, and thirty-nine states already have such legislation, including Michigan. Although there are proponents of these laws, I contend that these laws are “rhetorical pleasers” more harmful than beneficial. Criticism directed at “right to try” legislation focuses on several concerns, including its potential to undermine the clinical trial system and the belief that ultimately such laws only serve the elite. Some critics address false harm arguments, although these concerns are mostly different from mine. Critics argue that the legislation creates false hope, because pharmaceutical companies are less than eager to share their innovative pharmaceuticals, and are afraid of right-to-try-associated risks and harms that might lead to scientific and drug development setbacks. Patients, therefore, most often are unable to obtain access to the medications, so their hope for a “miracle drug” is in fact unfulfilled. Without actionable pathways, patient access cannot be guaranteed. (Indeed, in Michigan, Bridge Magazine suggests that the legislation has failed to change the status quo, and no one has sought access.)

My proposal that the HCP should stand up against unreasonable rights to try comes from my belief that these laws create FHH instead of real benefit. “Right to try” legislation generates false hope as the sought after experimental interventions are unlikely to benefit the patient. Although the legislation requires the drug to have passed Phase I clinical trial safety testing, this measure does not amount to a guarantee that the medication offers benefit. A Phase I clinical trial is safety focused, conducted in a very controlled environment, and in fact many treatments fail to demonstrate benefit outside that controlled environment.

The federal legislation is therefore an even more troublesome example of “feel good” legislation, as it propagates and augments FHH. It endorses the idea that pursing experimental treatment is both feasible and reasonable. Equally, it supports the notion that as long as one has the means, one should have access to try. Most importantly, by limiting FDA oversight, it undermines safeguards and trust in the system, and creates more room for FHH, giving pharmaceutical companies nearly a free reign.

Standing up to false hope is painfully hard, especially in the face of persuasive, emotionally vivid stories. Who would want to deny anyone hope for a miracle? Charlie Gard’s parents wanted to try a new treatment for their son, but their providers refused access. While their son was tragically dying, they were helpless to avert the inevitable. They heard about a treatment in the U.S. and appealed for access. But the UK doctors refused to endorse their appeal and the Court eventually prevented Charlie Gard’s parents from taking their son to the U.S. for treatment. A compassionate intuition could be: provided Charlie did not feel pain, why would there be anything wrong with them pursing this treatment in the U.S.? His parents had sufficient funds to cover related costs, so their pursuit would not further tax the social system. Experts suggested that there was a zero percent chance of health benefits for Charlie, but who can really know zero percent if you haven’t tried? We can never exclude miracles, can we? Even though this drug was not past Phase I, it had shown marginal benefit in other kids with illness that were related to Charlie’s, so safety wasn’t hard to prove.

I propose that if providers would have allowed Charlie to leave for the U.S., their endorsement would have exploited vulnerable individuals; they would have collaborated in FHH. The providers took the right and courageous action. Not speaking out against FHH passively supports initiatives that are more harmful than beneficial, and speaking out requires an active positioning of individual providers—optimally supported by the larger body of HCPs. I submit that this should extend to participating in requests for non-beneficial treatment requests like resuscitative efforts on dying patients. The medical profession rests on elements of trust, guidance, expertise and collaboration. Absent health care providers’ courage to deny treatment, we are doomed to see a further erosion of that profession. Without provider action against “right to try,” under legislation or requests in the clinic, medicine is at risk of further drifting into consumerist medicine, where money, fear, and privilege turn health care (and providers) into hostages of patient demands.

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Marleen Eijkholt is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Dr. Eijkholt is also a Clinical Ethics Consultant at Spectrum Health System.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, October 5, 2017. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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Dr. Tomlinson leads ‘Being Mortal’ discussion

tomlinson-crop-2016Center Director Dr. Tom Tomlinson led a discussion on Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Happens in the End on June 21, 2016 at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing. About 40 people attended this free event.

Participants brought a variety of stories of their encounters with end-of-life situations, some quite positive and others not. These inspired a wide range of discussion touching on the themes in the book: recognizing one’s mortality; being able to meet it on your own terms; tensions between preserving personal autonomy and insuring safety for those in need of some care; the failure to disclose and discuss a grim prognosis, and the resulting infliction of unwarranted aggressive treatment; meeting the family’s needs, without losing focus on the patients; and others. The event was organized by the Cantor, Pamela Schiffer, and the Rabbi Amy Bigman attended.

Rights and Responsibilities at the End of Life

Bioethics-in-the-News-logoThis post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series.

By Hannah Giunta, MPH, PhD 

Questions about end-of-life care are always vexing, but a recent article in U.S. News and World Report suggests that cancer patients continue to receive useless but harmful treatments at the end of life (Thompson, 2016). A new research study presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO’s) annual meeting revealed that a big part of the problem comes from a lack of meaningful dialogue among physicians, patients, and family members. Indeed, in many cases, serious discussions never take place. Dr. Ronald Chen, a radiation oncologist at the University of North Carolina’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, and his colleagues examined de-identified claims data from patients younger than 65 with advanced cancer who died between 2007 and 2014 and were enrolled in Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance plans. They found that nearly three-quarters of patients with a variety of advanced cancers received aggressive care within the last 30 days of life—a proportion that remains virtually unchanged even after the ASCO issued warnings to physicians about the harm of such treatments in 2012 (Begley, 2016). Unfortunately, these treatments are not only unlikely to help but can be quite harmful. Andrew Epstein, an ASCO palliative care expert, explains, “Much more often than not, these types of care at the end of life are not helpful, and they are emotionally and physically harmful for patients, and emotionally harmful to the patients’ loved ones” (Thompson, 2016).

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Image description: an image of Rosie the Riveter is combined with a pink ribbon representing breast cancer awareness, and text that reads “we can do it.” Image source: Flickr user Beverly & Pack.

The ASCO’s “Choosing Wisely” guidelines encourage physicians not to perform invasive procedures or try last-ditch chemotherapy and radiation regimens when patients are already significantly debilitated and unlikely to benefit. But, although the ASCO has encouraged end-of-life discussions, experts on end-of-life care worry about evidence that most terminally ill patients don’t even know they are in their final days. A separate study recently published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that only 7% of patients who had scans, knew their cancer was quickly progressing, and discussed their prognosis with a physician acknowledged that they likely had mere months to live. Physicians frequently used overly optimistic language, and patients did not press their physicians for more information or explanation. As Holly Prigerson, an expert on end-of-life care at Weill Cornell Medicine, suggested, oncologists are generally “very reluctant to put a number on how long patients to have live” (Epstein et al., 2016). This reluctance likely stems from a fear of being characterized as overly pessimistic or as giving up on patients too quickly. Thus, we are left with the question of what to do with the results of these two studies. Why are physicians and patients so reluctant to discuss end-of-life choices and care options?

I believe there are two primary issues at play here. First, there appears to be unwillingness on the part of physicians to broach difficult subjects. It is especially problematic that despite general professional agreement about the need for less aggressive end-of-life care physicians routinely fail to have frank discussions with patients and steer them toward appropriate palliative options. I surmise that part of what is going on here has to do with the difficulty of changing perspectives. Few physicians would voice disapproval for palliative care in theory, but it is difficult to give up the fight and focus only on palliation. The medical community wants to “beat” cancer, not admit defeat. The culture of cancer has been shaped by a warrior myth whereby giving up on a cure is unacceptable. The only acceptable response is to fight the cancer to the very end, even if that fight requires significant sacrifices. No doubt, cancer culture is fueled by the general public’s expectations as well (Page, 2015); but, since physicians ultimately control access to aggressive care, they must take a large share of responsibility for the warrior ethos. Physicians would have great social power if they presented a united front in favor of palliative care.

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Image description: a screen shot of search engine results for “cancer warrior” shows a glimpse of the socially acceptable “warrior” culture.

But, it is not enough for physicians to endorse and openly encourage palliative care. Secondly, we must consider what rights and responsibilities patients have when faced with critical illness. Too much of the discussion about end-of-life care to date has focused exclusively on the rights of patients to seek last-ditch treatment options. There is less discussion about patients’ right to receive comprehensive hospice and palliative care, and there is absolutely no discussion about the responsibilities patients have when they exercise their rights. It seems obvious that patients have a right to understand their prognosis and make informed decisions, but what of their responsibilities? Patients have a concomitant responsibility to be informed consumers when they seek care in accordance with their individual capacities. Part of becoming an informed consumer is recognizing that there will come a time in life when modern medicine no longer has an answer. That time may be sooner or later than a patient anticipates, but it will assuredly come. Preparation for these decisions is a patient’s responsibility. I would argue that current social pressures on patients to be so-called warriors who give up everything for a cure—no matter how unlikely or far-fetched said cure is—both limit individual choice (Page, 2015) and simultaneously allow patients not to discharge their responsibilities as informed consumers.

Remedying current end-of-life care challenges requires changes in attitude and behavior on the part of physicians and patients. Physicians have a professional responsibility to educate themselves and to offer patients reasonable treatment options—options that will most likely be palliative rather than curative. But, patients also have a role. They have a responsibility to think about end-of-life decisions. As human beings, we know our time is inevitably finite. We have a responsibility to prepare for end-of-life choices in the same way that we make plans for dependents, write wills, and purchase life insurance. Now, we just have to find ways to change behavior. So, to start the discussion, I am asking, “How can we collectively speak out against the current cancer warrior culture and help physicians and patients appreciate their rights and responsibilities?”

hannah-giunta-100Hannah Giunta
 is an eighth year DO-PhD student at Michigan State University. She received her MPH in May 2015 and her philosophy PhD in May 2016. She is currently completing her medical school clerkships.

Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, July 7, 2016. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.

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Clinical Ethics Interest Group offers Advance Directive Workshop featuring Tom Tomlinson

The Clinical Ethics Interest Group will host an interactive workshop on Michigan’s advance directive laws and talking with patients about end-of-life decisions. Tom Tomlinson, Director of the Center for Ethics, will be the featured speaker.

The workshop will take place on September 19 from 12-1 pm and can be attended on MSU’s East Lansing Campus in room B105, Life Sciences building, or the Grand Rapids campus in room 220, Secchia Center.

Lunch will be provided. Please RSVP to: clinicalethicsig@gmail.com

It is the goal of the Clinical Ethics Interest Group to make the College of Human Medicine student body more aware of clinical ethical issues and help them understand which actions are considered right or wrong in a clinical setting. The Clinical Ethics Interest Group is sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences.

Event flyer: CEIG Advanced Directive Workshop Sept 19