The AMANews magazine, a weekly print newspaper for the members of the American Medical Association, has an article in the May 14 edition, available on line now. The excerpt is free here, but full content is only available to members and paid subscribers. Since LifeEthics readers have been following the progress of the legislation and know about the most recent action in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, here’s the portion that’s not available for free:
Texas hospitals have used their state’s advance directives law 27 times to withdraw treatment over family objections, said Robert L. Fine, MD, one of the 1999 law’s architects.
Supporters of the status quo say the process normally extends far beyond 10 days.
“This law is usually invoked after days, weeks or even months of negotiation with families,” said Tom Mayo, a health law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has helped evaluate more than a dozen medical futility cases on various hospital ethics committees.
Those seeking to abolish the time limit, however, allege that hospitals are most concerned about the estimated $10,000 a day it costs to provide intensive-care unit life support in these cases.
“The current statute, effectively allowing euthanasia with a polite and perfunctory 10-day notice, is misapplied and rips families away from the bedsides of their loved ones,” said Bob Deuell, MD, author of a Senate treat-until-transfer bill, in an April letter to The Dallas Morning News. Dr. Deuell did not respond to AMNews’ interview requests by deadline.
Bob Kafka, a Texas organizer for Not Dead Yet — a disability rights group that opposes the advance directives law — said in a statement that “the ability of a doctor to overrule both the patient and their surrogate in withdrawing life-sustaining treatment is in violation of the principle of patient autonomy.”
But physicians argue that their obligation is principally to the terminally ill patient, not the family.
“It can be hard for patients’ families to wrap their heads around the dying process,” said Hanoch Patt, MD, an Austin, Texas, pediatric cardiologist who has served on hospital ethics committees and testified against the treat-until-transfer legislation. His patients often require invasive procedures if there is any hope for recovery, “but when a treatment can cause only more pain and suffering without any hope of benefit, then we’re just prolonging the dying process, and I’m obligated to stop the treatment.”
Compromise in the works
As this story went to press in late April, a compromise bill authored by House Public Health Committee Chair Dianne Delisi that would give families 21 days’ notice to secure a transfer before the withdrawal of life support gained backing from the Texas Hospital Assn. and the Texas Medical Assn. The bill also would not apply to cases in which the only life support provided is artificial hydration and nutrition.
Such a compromise is not ideal, said Mark Casanova, MD, an internist at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
“Physicians are going to live within the legal confines that we are forced to live within,” he said, “but morally and based on medical ethical principles that are centuries old, we don’t feel that it’s necessarily appropriate. It’s just 11 more days of suffering and pain for these patients that will not result in a single saved life.”
AMA policy on futile care says hospitals should develop policies on how to handle such cases, refer them to ethics committees, involve families to the greatest extent possible and attempt to negotiate settlements. If the committee sides with the attending physician, the ethical opinion states, the hospital should seek a transfer, and if no transfer can be arranged, care should be withdrawn.