Being Mortal

Being Mortal

Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande

The researchers randomly assigned 151 patients with stage IV lung cancer, like Sara’s, to one of two possible approaches to treatment. Half received usual oncology care. The other half received usual oncology care plus parallel visits with a palliative care specialist. These are specialists in preventing and relieving the suffering of patients, and to see one, no determination of whether they are dying or not is required. If a person has serious, complex illness, palliative specialists are happy to help. The ones in the study discussed with the patients their goals and priorities for if and when their condition worsened. The result: those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives—and they lived 25 percent longer. In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality. If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it. Patients entering hospice have had no less surprising results. Like many other people, I had believed that hospice care hastens death, because patients forgo hospital treatments and are allowed high-dose narcotics to combat pain. But multiple studies find otherwise. In one, researchers followed 4,493 Medicare patients with either terminal cancer or end-stage congestive heart failure. For the patients with breast cancer, prostate cancer, or colon cancer, the researchers found no difference in survival time

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