Tag Archives: Cardiopulmonary resuscitation

Finding the words

Making and documenting good decisions about CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and treatment escalation plans, that are truly shared decisions, is a challenge. I find that the challenge comes from a number of factors: intrinsic difficulties of talking about the possibility of death in a largely death-denying culture; the great diversity of beliefs, wishes, and level of preparation for such decisions amongst patients; difficulties in facing my own mortality and the ways in which personal situations may affect my professional abilities; navigating tensions between hope and acceptance; and additional complexities that stem from having such conversations in the context of an emergency hospital admission. In the midst of a busy shift, faced with distressed people who are in pain, sometimes it is hard to find the words.

A number of recent cases have highlighted concerns about the process of resuscitation decision making and documentation. In particular, people have been distressed by the fact that DNACPR (do not attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation) orders have being placed in their records without an explicit discussion with either them or their family. The High Court Ruling on R (David Tracey) vs 1) Cambridge University Hospitals 2) Secretary of State for Health forced the medical profession to face up to residual paternalism in this area of practice, and to make changes. It prompted some important reflections amongst individuals, teams and institutions and I have seen a noticeable difference in practice since the ruling, which reinforced the legal duty to discuss decisions about care with patients, particularly DNACPR decisions.

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DNACPR discussions provide an opportunity to engage patients in informed decision making. This requires an awareness of what CPR is and what determines success. Unfortunately there is a wide gap between the practice and success rates of CPR on television, and reality [1,2]. Worse still, this gap has widened in recent years [3]. With this backdrop, it is essential that discussions between healthcare professionals and patients and their loved ones are open, honest, realistic, supportive and clear. A number of reports have questioned whether the processes and documents we use currently are adequate to support such discussions. For example The Health Select Committee’s enquiry into end-of-life care reported:

“We recommend that the Government review the use of DNACPR orders in acute care settings, including whether resuscitation decisions should be considered in the context of overall treatment plans. This Committee believes there is a case for standardising the recording mechanisms for the NHS in England.”

This has led to the development of a newly designed Emergency Care and Treatment Plan. The Resuscitation Council (UK) is currently holding a public consultation on this document and the information provided alongside it. Documents and guidelines have an authority and power that should not be underestimated; their language and structures shape our behaviour and frame our interactions. It is essential, therefore, that the panel considering new documentation on decisions regarding treatment during serious illness get it right. But what does ‘right’ look like? I have read the proposed document and it is has clearly been drawn up with good intentions. There are several aspects which would improve clarity and communication. However, the language used at the heart of the document leaves me concerned. I can see the benefits of widening the question beyond a yes/no decision on CPR, to encompass overall priorities for treatment. But, for me as a potential patient, and as a doctor in its’ current form the wording doesn’t capture the essence of these decisions in a way that will positively support clarity of communication.

Following discussions on CPR and other interventions, what I hope to capture in my documentation is the values of the patient, and any lines that they do not wish to cross. The current proposal requires a decision between three options:

ECTP options

Although I could fit in any discussion to these categories I worry that they do not prompt and support relevant choice and accurately capturing the priorities of patients and their families. Most people’s priority is to get better, but this is not always possible or realistic. Who would not want to ‘consider’ all treatment to prolong life if framed in this way? I am concerned that the  alternative options are too broad and therefore do not really help in this area of complex decision making. Although of course the document would be part of wider, more detailed discussions, these key headline categories could be a hindrance rather than a help in this process. I have suggested that the panel consider stronger wording and tentatively suggested:

  • The over-riding priority is to prolong life, and all treatment options, no matter how invasive would therefore be accepted.
  • The priority is to prolong life, but not at the cost of quality of life. Some interventions would not be accepted (see below for specifics).
  • The over-riding priority is quality of life, therefore interventions which may prolong life but at the cost of quality of life would not be accepted. Care should be focused on symptom control, comfort and dignity.

These are in some ways subtle changes, but for me these statements are clearer and give a better sense of priorities, prompting documentation of more specific details. They also bring to the fore the real chance of harm from invasive interventions and ensure this forms part of decision making. I do not imagine everyone will agree, and I don’t think this formulation is perfect. I would be very interested to hear what others feel about the proposal. 

The consultation closes at 9am on 29th February. Please consider submitting a response, particularly if you are a patient or carer. We need many voices and perspectives to make sure we find the right words and get this right.

  1. Harris, D., & Willoughby, H. (2009). Resuscitation on television: Realistic or ridiculous? A quantitative observational analysis of the portrayal of cardiopulmonary resuscitation in television medical drama. Resuscitation,80(11), 1275-1279.
  2. Hinkelbein, Jochen, et al. “An assessment of resuscitation quality in the television drama Emergency Room: Guideline non-compliance and low-quality cardiopulmonary resuscitation lead to a favorable outcome?.”Resuscitation 85.8 (2014): 1106-1110.
  3. Portanova, J., Irvine, K., Yi, J. Y., & Enguidanos, S. (2015). It isn’t like this on TV: Revisiting CPR survival rates depicted on popular TV shows.Resuscitation, 96, 148-150.

How to die: CPR and the concept of futility

I recently cared for Ernest,* an 87 year old gentleman who spent around two weeks on my ward. Prior to admission his health was poor. He was bed-bound due to the late stages of a degenerative neurological disease, and had associated cognitive impairment. He had several other health complaints, and had been in hospital multiple times in the previous year with infections. He had always responded to antibiotics but his condition and level of interaction with the world had declined with each admission. On arrival to our ward I noticed that he did not have a DNAR order and, since he was not able to discuss his wishes, I looked to the family for information and to broach this subject. I was surprised to find that several vocal family members were adamantly against a DNAR. I had lengthy discussions explaining my reasons for believing that attempts at resuscitation would be futile and that setting limits of care was important to ensure we pursued quality, not just quantity of life. They listened, seemed to understand, and themselves identified his frailty, deterioration over the last year, and decline in his quality of life. However they strongly objected to us making him “not for attempted resuscitation.” As the end of the week approached I felt uncomfortable about the lack of a DNAR order, and about the possibility of this frail gentleman suffering a brutal and undignified exit to the world should his heart stop. I tried to communicate my personal discomfort to the family, and the reasons for it in the context of my experience of the realities of CPR attempts in those with poor underlying health. I also made it clear we were not asking for them to make this decision, but wanted to integrate their views into the medical decision-making process. I was aware of the potential to be seen as being coercive and paternalistic, but felt a duty to act in what I believed to be the best interests of my patient. We treated him with escalating regimes of iv antibiotics, iv fluids and nutritional supplements with no improvement, and by the end of the first week the family reluctantly withdrew their objections to a DNAR. Unfortunately he did not respond to treatment, his organs began to shut down and he drifted into a state of unconsciousness. At the end of the second week the Consultant and I had further difficult conversations with his family members about the withdrawal of antibiotics, fluids and nutrition. He died; peacefully and comfortably with his family present.

I thought a lot about Ernest and his family at the time and in the weeks since. I was taken aback by the strong objection to a DNAR order and, not for the first time, wondered about the expectations of the public of medical interventions. I also wondered what I could and should have done differently; where the line is between professional advice and personal opinion; and to what degree families’ wishes should be followed in the face of futility.

An article in the NEJM addressed the question “Is it always wrong to perform futile CPR?” and suggested that there are some circumstances in which it may beThe "Father of Modern Medicine" right to proceed with futile treatments at the end of life for the sake of the family: for those left behind. I recognise this argument, but my personal beliefs align more with those who contend that this is never right, as it treats the patient as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves (see Kant), and causes harm to the patient. The Hippocratic Oath is very clear on the duty not to do harm and  to recognise one’s limits.

This quote from a 1988 letter to the editor of NEJM seems even more appropriate today, as the options for what can be done grow, whilst what should be done, is not always considered :

“It seems we have lost sight of the difference between patients who die because their hearts stop and patients whose hearts stop because they are dying.”

Conversations about the limits of medical intervention, the inevitability of death, and the need for priorities other than duration of life are not broached often enough or openly enough. The aim of talking more openly is not to remove hope, but to give patients the space to exercise true choice and autonomy, to define their own priorities, and to live out the time they have left in the way they choose. It also releases the medical team to do all we can with total conviction, comforted by appropriate limits. We live in an ageing society. More people now die from chronic conditions after a long period of declining health, or from a combination of factors best defined as frailty. Atul Gawande, Professor of Surgery at Harvard Medical School, when asked by a family member whether one of his patients was dying admits to struggling to know how to answer:

“I wasn’t even sure what the word “dying” meant anymore. In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.”

For patients in the late stages of chronic health conditions such as heart failure and COPD the week or month of their death is not predictable, but the fact that their lifespan is limited is fact. Starting these conversations is difficult, and communicating the concept of futility can be a huge challenge. What does futility really mean? What % survival from CPR does the public think is achievable and what would they define as futile? Is this the same definition as doctors? It is no wonder that we struggle to find the words, but this is no excuse. The medical profession must not collude in the conspiracy of eternal life, and the  perception of death as failure.

So how do we move forward? A recent JAMA article has suggested a standardised approach to determining DNAR status. Reading the conclusions, the most striking thing is that they sound like simple common sense: “Whenever there is a reasonable chance that the benefits of CPR might outweigh its harms, CPR should be the default option. However, in imminently dying patients….The default option in this situation should be an order to not attempt CPR.” The problem is that life is rarely so black and white, and many patients arrive at hospital with a potentially life-threatening illness but are not imminent dying. It is these patients who still need appropriate limits of care setting, but this is not built into our day to day practice.

The conclusions of the NCEPOD report “Cardiac Arrest Procedures: Time to Intervene?” have been widely reported but often with a negative spin, painting doctors as the enemy of patients “fighting for life.” This is an emotive subject and the media are rarely helpful, fuelling fears of patients having decisions made for them and being abandoned at the end. The Daily Mail can always be relied upon to deal as insensitively as possible with these complex subjects (see here and here, where they conflate the question of the appropriateness of DNARs with communication issues and accusations of neglect, making it difficult for the public to consider the issue in isolation.) The Chair of the NCEPOD report has identified the fact the we all need to recognise and accept the limits of what medicine can achieve. But who does he mean by “all?” This is a societal issue, and discussions need to leave the hospital ward and GPs’ surgery and find their way into people’s homes.

Reflecting on my interactions with Ernest’s family, I was heartened by this quote from Atul Gawande in The New Yorker:

“People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come…”

I will continue to have these hard discussions, but hope that in time they will be made easier by a greater awareness and preparedness from the public. Death is a part of life and our continued silence only makes it more deafening when it arrives.

See The Health Culture blog: “Actions surrounding the moment of death are highly symbolic,MedicalEthicsandMe‘s thoughts, and lots of posts on the Medical Futility blog for further insightful discussion.

* names changed to maintain confidentiality