Physicians undergo years of education and training to promote wellness, cure and heal, and protect life. Yet we also know that death is inevitable, and we are increasingly recognizing the importance of advance care planning. We urge patients to do the same.
Advance care planning is the term for the planning we do as our health care becomes complicated and as we need to make challenging decisions about our care, often towards the end of life.
Planning becomes an integral part of most people’s lives at an early age, and most of us are always planning ahead. We plan for education and careers; we create wills, buy life insurance, and establish retirement accounts.
Advance care planning can be thought of in the same way, as a medical part of the future, because one day, despite how intense our will to live may be, the end will arrive. Planning makes your wishes known ahead of time and ensures that they are fulfilled.
The planning begins with the simple act of talking - talking with your health care provider and family members to let them know what your wishes are about end-of-life issues.
Once those decisions are reached – and it can be appropriate over time to revisit the discussion to change or refine previous decisions – patients then complete certain forms to specify their wishes.
Two of the most important forms are the health care proxy and a MOLST form. A health care proxy indicates which person you choose to make health care decisions on your behalf should you become unable to do so. The MOLST form – an acronym for medical orders for life-sustaining treatment – outlines your preferences for such areas as whether or not you wish to be resuscitated in certain situations. Copies of completed forms should be distributed to family members and all your health care providers.
Advance care planning isn’t recommended just for elderly patients or those with terminal illnesses. Physicians recommend that the conversation and planning for everyone start earlier rather than later because of the uncertainty of when that final moment might arrive.
End-of-life care may also include palliative care and hospice care, and patients are urged to learn about these areas of medical care as well. Palliative care refers to the type of care that is delivered when someone is diagnosed with a life-limiting illness. Hospice care is care for those entering the last few months of life, usually with a prognosis of six months or less to live.
Health care can get more complicated as we age. We may accumulate more illnesses, get frailer, be more susceptible to injury. Advance care planning makes us think about what we want, what’s most important, and then communicate that with family members and the health care team.
Physicians certainly recognize the persistent hope patients can have, even in the direst of circumstances.
But in addition to being a health care advocate throughout life, physicians are now able to play an important role in end-of-life care as well.
Many patients who face terminal illness tell us that they are praying for a miracle. We believe in miracles, too: the miracles of dignity, of comfort, of love, of peace. If patients work together with their health care team, physicians can help to make those miracles happen.
More information, including a free brochure, Planning Ahead: What are your choices?, that lists a number of resources, is available free from the Massachusetts Medical Society at www.massmed.org/advancecareplanning
For a video discussion, visit www.physicianfocus.org/advancecareplanning
.Eric Reines, M.D. is a geriatrician with Element Care in Lynn, and Beth Warner, D.O., is a geriatrician with Cooley Dickinson Health Care in Northampton. Dr. Reines is Chair, and Dr. Warner a member, of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Committee on Geriatric Medicine.Physician Focus is a public service of the Massachusetts Medical Society. Readers should use their own judgment when seeking medical care and consult with their physician for treatment.