Salem, OR, United States (KaiserHealth) – Americans who want to ensure they have a say in how they die should examine the lessons of Oregon, a new analysis suggests.
Seriously ill people in that state are more likely to have their end-of-life wishes honored – including fewer intensive-care hospitalizations and more home hospice enrollments – than those living in neighboring Washington state or the rest of the country.
In 2013, nearly two-thirds of Oregonians who died did so at home, compared with fewer than 40 percent of people elsewhere in the U.S., according to the report published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine. Previous research had shown that more than 85 percent of Americans say they’d prefer to die at home.
“Obviously, if you’ve spent decades trying to improve your end-of-life care, it’s pretty rewarding to see that something changes,” said Dr. Susan Tolle, director of the Center for Ethics in Health Care at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who co-led the study.
The review analyzed Medicare fee-for-service claims data from 2000, 2005 and 2013, and it compared end-of-life care in Oregon and Washington – a nearby state with similar demographics and attitudes toward end-of-life care – with the rest of the U.S., excluding those two states.
It found that in 2013, ICU use in the last 30 days of life was about 18 percent in Oregon, compared with 23 percent in Washington and 28.5 percent in the rest of the U.S. Nearly three-quarters of patients in Oregon hospitalized in the last month of life were discharged to home, compared with slightly fewer than two-thirds in Washington state and a little more than half – 54.2 percent – in the rest of the U.S.
More than 40 percent of patients in Oregon were enrolled in home hospice in 2013, compared with about 30 percent in Washington and fewer than 20 percent in the rest of the U.S, the analysis found.
Oregon, which enacted the nation’s first death-with-dignity law and led the way on implementing portable medical orders for treatment at the end of life, may be reaping the results of those and other efforts, said Tolle’s co-author, Dr. Joan Teno, a professor of medicine, gerontology and geriatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“When you look at the patterns, it’s very different than the rest of the United States,” she said. “It’s even different than a borderline state.”
Pat Duty, 64, who ran a Portland floor-covering business with her husband, Jimmy, for years, said Oregon’s palliative care culture helped guide treatment decisions after his 2013 diagnosis of lung cancer and dementia. Jimmy Duty wanted limited medical interventions; he had a do-not-resuscitate order, plus a request to avoid the ICU.
“He was very clear that quality of life was his first choice,” Pat Duty recalled. “We knew we needed to discuss these things while he could make decisions for himself. We wanted to give him the dignity and grace he deserved for his final couple of years.” He died in October 2015 at age 74.
Molly MacDonald, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 54, when she was a divorced single mother of five, opted not to undergo reconstructive surgery because of the cost. She worried about the increased risk of infection and hospitalization, which she knew she could not afford.
“All of my decisions were based on cost,” said MacDonald, of Beverly Hills, Mich. “We sold things. I cut the kids’ hair myself. Friends brought food. Then I found myself in line at the food bank. I used to have groceries delivered. It was interesting to find out how quickly someone can find themselves in a place of need.”
In October 2006, after MacDonald got back on her feet, she began soliciting donations for a nonprofit she created called The Pink Fund, which helps to pay breast cancer patients’ bills. The fund now pays about $65,000 in bills a month. “We’ve helped people who are living in storage units, living with their families, living in cars.”
MacDonald often draws from her experience when offering financial advice. Consider selling your house to prevent it from being taken away, she suggests. Remember, that as bad as the situation is, it’s not permanent. But she also asks clients, “What in your house can you sell?”
Correction: This story was updated on March 15 to correctly state the cost of Keytruda, which is $152,400 a year.
KHN’s coverage related to aging & improving care of older adults is supported by The John A. Hartford Foundation and coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported by The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
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