My moral distress: a follow-up regarding forced futile care

Well, I guess I'm not alone.

The article 'Doctors and nurses working with critically ill patients suffer moral distress, research finds' in the Vancouver Sun, unsurprisingly revealed that many health care providers struggle with the kind of care we have to give at the end of life.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia who surveyed 1,400 ICU nurses, doctors and other health professionals have found worrying levels of distress in the very places growing numbers of  Canadians will exit this life. Half the critical care nurses surveyed, and 27 per cent of ICU doctors, said they have considered quitting their jobs because of distress with the way patient care was handled at their hospital . . .

[T]hat waiting time for nursing staff is difficult, because the question in their heads is, is the patient comfortable? Are we actually doing harm versus doing good? Are we prolonging the dying process, rather than prolonging life? . . .

'we’re over-intensifying care at the end of life and causing not only the patient to suffer in those final stages of life, but the poor loved one who witnesses all of this and lives with that poignant memory of an intensified death'

I certainly struggle with this, and it has been the dominant existential angst in my world this past year. 

I wrote about feeling like I would quit my job if I was forced to provide medically futile care. I talked to colleagues, friends, and new acquaintances. I met a woman at a conference in Oxford who said it's something (at the end of her career) that she still struggles with and felt things were getting worse. The one bit of fantastic help I found was a colleague who referred me to the British Medical Association policy "Decisions Relating to Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation"  (Oct 2014), which is perfectly in line with my understanding/beliefs/duty. However, it is not Canadian and so can I really adopt it as my practice? I didn't really feel better. I was worried I'd never enjoy my work again.

I love helping people get back on their feet! There's nothing more rewarding than seeing a spry 87 year old lady racing up the stairs with the physiotherapist after a broken hip recovery! I also feel good when I have brought emotional comfort, relief of pain, a warm smile, a hearty laugh, or helped just by being there for a patient who is dying.

When people die, it is very sad. It is also rewarding to have been trusted to support them as they pass away with dignity and comfort, especially when their life no longer contains the qualities that brought them joy and meaning.

I hemmed and hawed and made plans to work in an environment that would still involve end-of-life-care, but would involve less intense encounters. The affluent, big-city hospital is not the right place for me if I find it morally exhausting to navigate the fine line of catering to patient family's wishes vs "doing the right thing and not causing harm."

We don't want to "give up" on anyone, but maybe that's what it sounds like I am suggesting to my patients? Dr Brett Belchetz suggests that by changing the term from "Do Not Resuscitate" to "Allow Natural Death" ('Do away with the term 'Do Not Resuscitate,' National Post) we can help remove some of the distress around end of life planning. That might help, but there's so much more than semantics involved.

I can't rapidly change the thinking of the people around me, but I can change the people around me! As obnoxious a statement that is, it is true and though running away will not solve this problem, it might help me somewhat. I need more joy back in my days! I get some in the big hospital but I remember having much much more every(any)where else.

My partner and I considered relocating back to Ontario, where we are both originally from, for his job and for me to work in a smaller town. We were convinced Ontario wasn't right for us, with the help of one of his colleagues who had recently made the same consideration. Of course it makes sense for us to stay in British Columbia, but I had mixed feelings about not returning to Ontario. Then, a follow-up article by Tom Blackwell appeared in the National Post: Doctors need patient or family consent before stopping end-of-life treatment: new Ontario draft policy.

Since we are talking about death and dying, let me say this draft policy provided the nail in the coffin on any lingering desires to move to Ontario.

I am again terrified of the precedent this sets. 

The blueprint, to be released officially Thursday, contrasts with the existing advice offered by Ontario’s College of Physicians & Surgeons — that doctors should avoid treatments they believe will be of no benefit or harmful to a gravely ill patient . . .

The current policy says when it is clear that a treatment will almost certainly not benefit or may be harmful to a patient, “physicians should refrain from beginning or maintaining such treatment.”

The new draft says physicians must get consent from the patient, or “substitute decision maker” if the patient is unable to voice his or her wishes.

How can I reconcile my profound moral distress with this policy? How will you manage?