NY Times June 26, 2018 by Paula Span
But when he grew less alert and began struggling to breathe, his son tearfully called 911.
“As soon as I met them, his son said, ‘Put him on a breathing machine,’” recalled Dr. Kei Ouchi, an emergency physician and researcher at the hospital.
Hospice patients know that they’re close to death; they and their families have also been instructed that most distressing symptoms, like shortness of breath, can be eased at home.
But the son kept insisting, “Why can’t you put him on a breathing machine?”
Dr. Ouchi, lead author of a new study of how older people fare after emergency room intubation, knew this would be no simple decision.
“I went into emergency medicine thinking I’d be saving lives. I used to be very satisfied putting patients on a ventilator,” he told me in an interview.
But he began to realize that while intubation is indeed lifesaving, most older patients came to the E.R. with serious illnesses. “They sometimes have values and preferences beyond just prolonging their lives,” he said.
Like all emergency doctors, he’d been trained to perform the procedure — sedating the patient, putting a plastic tube down his throat and then attaching him to a ventilator that would breathe for him.
But, he said, “I was never trained to talk to patients or their families about what this means.”
His study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, reveals more about that.
Of potentially greater importance to elderly patients — who so often declare they’d rather die than spend their lives in nursing homes — are the discharge statistics.
Only a quarter of intubated patients go home from the hospital. Most survivors, 63 percent, go elsewhere, presumably to nursing facilities.The study doesn’t address whether they face short rehab stays or become permanent residents.
But it does document the crucial role that age plays.
After intubation, 31 percent of patients ages 65 to 74 survive the hospitalization and return home. But for 80- to 84-year-olds, that figure drops to 19 percent; for those over age 90, it slides to 14 percent.
At the same time, the mortality rate climbs sharply, to 50 percent in the eldest cohort from 29 percent in the youngest.
All intubated patients proceed to intensive care, most remaining sedated because intubation is uncomfortable. If they were conscious, patients might try to pull out the tubes or the I.V.’s delivering nutrition and medications. They cannot speak.
Intubation “is not a walk in the park,” Dr. Ouchi said. “This is a significant event for older adults. It can really change your life, if you survive.”
A study at Yale University in 2015 following older adults before and after an I.C.U. stay (average age: 83) confirmed what many geriatricians already understood. Depending on how disabled patients are before a critical illness, they’re likely to see a decline in their function afterward, or to die within a year.
Those who underwent intubation had more than twice the mortality risk of other I.C.U. patients. “You don’t get better, most of the time,” said Dr. Ouchi. While outcomes remain hard to predict, “a lot of times, you get worse.”
Intubation rates are projected to increase. But so has the use of alternatives known as “noninvasive ventilation” — primarily the bipap device, short for bi-level positive airway pressure.
A tightfitting mask over the nose and mouth helps patients with certain conditions breathe nearly as well as intubation does. But they remain conscious and can have the mask removed briefly for a sip of water or a short conversation.
When researchers at the Mayo Clinic undertook an analysis of the technique, reviewing 27 studies of noninvasive ventilation in patients with do-not-intubate or comfort-care-only orders, they found that most survived to discharge. Many, treated on ordinary hospital floors, avoided intensive care.
“There are cases where noninvasive ventilation is comparable or even superior to mechanical ventilation,” said Dr. Douglas White, a critical care physician and ethicist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Dr. Ouchi, for instance, explained to his patient’s distraught son that intubation would thwart his father’s desire to remain communicative. The patient, able to see though not to say much, died four days later in a hospital room with bipap and morphine to reduce his “air hunger.”
Most patients in the Mayo review died within a year, too. But bipap may provide an interim option, giving families and physicians time to decide together whether to intubate an ailing older patient, who at this point probably can’t direct his own care.
The harried emergency room environment, after all, hardly encourages thoughtful discussions about patients’ prognoses and wishes. Those can become fraught conversations anyway, as Dr. White’s previous research has demonstrated.
His 2016 study showed that when physicians and surrogate decision makers have very different expectations about a critically ill patient’s odds of recovery, it’s not merely because family members fail to grasp what the physician explained.
“Other things get in the way of making good decisions,” Dr. White pointed out. “A lot of this has to do with psychological and emotional factors” — like “optimism bias” (Most people with this condition will die, but not my mom) or “performative optimism” (If we maintain hope, our mom will get better).
In their most recent study, he and his colleagues experimented with a support program for families with relatives in I.C.U.s., nearly all intubated.
When a specially-trained nurse checked in daily to explain developments and answer questions, families rated their communications more highly and felt more satisfied with their loved ones’ care.
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s health system has begun adopting the program in its 40 I.C.U.s.
But discussing how aggressively an older person wants to be treated remains a conversation — probably a series of them — best held before a crisis.
Intubation, for instance, is often something a physician can foresee. Older patients who have cardio-respiratory conditions (emphysema, lung cancer, heart failure), or who are prone to pneumonia, or who have entered the later stages of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease — any of them may be nearing this crossroads.
When they do, Dr. Michael Wilson, a critical care physician at the Mayo Clinic, opts for a particularly humane approach.
As he recently described in JAMA Internal Medicine, before he inserts the tube, he explains to the patient and family that while he and the staff will do everything they can, people in this circumstance may die.
“You may later wake up and do fine,” he tells his patient. “Or this may be the last time to communicate with your family,” because intubated patients can’t talk.
Since setting up intubation generally takes a few minutes, he encourages people to spend them sharing words of comfort, reassurance and affection. Without that pause, “I have stolen the last words from patients,” he told me.
His editorial has drawn attention from critical care physicians around the world.
Dr. Wilson has used this approach about 50 times in his I.C.U., so he has learned what patients and families, given this opportunity, tell one another.
“It’s nearly always, ‘I love you,’” he said. “‘I hope you do well.’”