Why Doctors Should Take End-of-Life Decisions Back From Insurers, Says Physician

Nicholas J. Schneeman, MD


August 02, 2023

Nicholas J. Schneeman, MD

Sadly, the medical business has descended to this: Some insurers are combing health records to find and target customers with a 50% chance of dying in the next 18 months. Those companies then work to persuade customers to switch into palliative and hospice care.

I've personally witnessed these insurer-driven interventions by companies that are rewarded financially when hospice enrollments increase. And more of this automated end-of-life medicine appears to be on the way.

What's gained is cost savings. What's lost is empathy and humanity.

Doctor colleagues have warned for decades about the rise of the bean-counters in medicine. Yes, healthcare is a business, but it should be a higher calling, too. We serve, we heal, we protect, and we comfort.

There are times, however, when the people who try to squeeze the most money out of medicine try to gain too much influence over the people who actually engage in medicine. I think the rise of phone bank boiler rooms, built on business incentives to move patients into cheaper hospice care, should be a bridge too far for our profession.

End-of-life care is one of the most sensitive and emotionally rewarding things a doctor can do. Hospice can be an excellent choice for fully informed patients and families, but we should not be turning over these decisions to AI, spreadsheets, and crunchers of big data.

At the same time, we should realize that the end-of-life phone banks have not evolved from nowhere. The reality is that dying is expensive. The last year of life accounts for 13%-25% of all spending on Medicare, according to numerous studies. That's more than $200 billion a year for just one part of one federal healthcare program. Much of that money goes to hospitals, where end-of-life patients amass average charges of $6000 per day.

All this spending runs counter to the wishes of most Americans. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 9 out of 10 adults say they don't want their families to be burdened financially by their end-of-life medical care. Given the choice, 7 out of 10 Americans say they want to die at home; fewer than 1 in 10 say they want to die in a hospital.

And far more people (71%) think it's more important to die without pain or stress than to extend life as long as possible (19%).

It's crucial for us to get this right. Within 11 years, the US Census projects that seniors will outnumber kids for the first time in history: We'll have 77 million people age 65 or older and 76.5 million age 18 or under. And many of those seniors have medical and functional conditions that signal they are nearing end of life.

As chief medical officer of a complete senior health company, and as a physician with more than three decades of personal experience in geriatrics, I know we can improve the final chapter of life for our older adults and our taxpayers. If medical professionals don't do a better job with patients at the end of life, then key decisions increasingly will be driven by the money-centered phone banks.

The single biggest improvement is having a frank and direct talk with senior patients about end-of-life wishes. Remarkably, only 1 in 10 Americans say they've ever had an end-of-life conversation with their doctor or healthcare provider — no heartfelt talk about what quality of life looks like under different treatment options. Only half ever discussed the topic with a spouse or loved one.

As a result, the default end-of-life care regimen for many is to extend life at any cost, even though most Americans tell pollsters they don't truly want that. Doctors must focus on thorough informed consent with patients before major medical crises hurt patient cognition.

Another key is for specialists and general care doctors to do a better job consulting with each other. Two of every three seniors have several chronic conditions, or multimorbidities; that status worsens to include 8 of every 10 seniors after age 80. That means seniors often have multiple doctors who work in their own silos and fail to communicate the competing risks and benefits of diagnostic and treatment options. The result is fragmented plans that are difficult to follow and often as likely to harm complex patients as help them.

We all know that 90-year-old people shouldn't be on 15 drugs, and yet too many are. Big Pharma has made it easy for doctors to add new medications, but I don't think there's even a class in medical school to teach clinicians how to trim the medicine list. When a drug is causing side effects, the sad reality is that most doctors add another medication to treat the side effect, as opposed to removing the offending agent. We need to end this practice known as drug cascading.

Doctors need training on how to unwind prescriptions. For example, too many seniors are being prescribed atypical antipsychotics off-label for dementia. Overtreatment of geriatric diabetes and hypertension causes weakness and falls. Overprescribing antibiotics for frail patients whose bladders are colonized with bacteria too often leads to colitis. We need to question why our seniors are on so many drugs.

Doctors, patients, and families should be discussing quality of life as much as quantity of life.

I've spent my career taking care of older people. It's rare for me to get a phone call saying an older person died and nobody expected it. We all know that we will die, but we spend so little time talking about it and preparing for it. A great disservice will be done to patients, doctors, and the medical profession if we let the phone banks take over.

Dr Nick Schneeman is a geriatrician and chief medical officer for Lifespark, a complete senior health company based in Minneapolis.

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