Map of remote execution requirements for advance directives.

Advance Care Planning in an Online World: State Law Activity and Challenges Since COVID-19

By Nikol Nesterenko, Jonathan Chernoguz, and Sarah Hooper

Advance care planning — the process by which an individual documents their wishes for health care in the event that they become incapacitated — has become particularly urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, individuals that wish to engage in advance care planning, and specifically to document their plans in a written form (i.e., advance directives), have faced significant hurdles due to legal execution requirements. State advance directive law often requires or presumes live, in-person witnessing or notarization, actions which were prohibited by social distancing orders or simply unsafe during the pandemic.

In this piece, we summarize the state of remote execution requirements for advance directives before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Broadly speaking, while many states took some action in this regard, most did not enact comprehensive changes, and therefore failed to meaningfully facilitate remote execution of advance directives.

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Oxygen mask as part of artificial lungs ventilation machine in surgery room, closeup.

Pandemic Highlights Need for Quality and Equity in End-of-Life Care

By Elizabeth Clayborne

I was a little less than six months pregnant when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. As an Emergency Physician, I am well aware of additional risks that my job often exposes me to on a daily basis. We frequently face physical and emotional strife from unstable psychiatric patients, critically ill nursing home residents, sexual assault victims, and newly diagnosed cancer patients.

People who work in an emergency department tend to understand what comes with the territory: a lot of hard work, unexpected outcomes, and daily traverses of the human experience, from the best emotions you can imagine, to lowest depths of human despair. This is what accompanies caring for every ailment for people from all walks of life. I actually love this part about my job! I never know what I’m going to see when I walk through the doors.

That said, being a frontline physician during COVID-19 has provided me with a profoundly different lens on the pressures surrounding health care workers. And experiencing this while pregnant was pretty terrifying.

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hospital equipment

Taking Control During COVID-19 Through Advance Care Planning

By Stephanie Anderson and Carole Montgomery

A deep divide exists in the American health care system between patients’ values and the care they receive.

Let’s start with a story – Marcus was in his mid-40’s when he underwent high-risk heart surgery during which he suffered a brain injury. Afterward, the surgeons at first reassured his family that the surgery itself was successful (his heart was working fine) in spite of his brain injury.

Unfortunately, after many days in the ICU he remained unconscious and was not able to get off the ventilator. Specialists told the family that his brain injury was severe, and he would likely not be able to carry on a meaningful conversation or live independently ever again.

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Busy Nurse's Station In Modern Hospital

A Physician Reflects on COVID-19 and Advance Care Planning

By Shoshana Ungerleider

It was the end of a 24 hour shift in the ICU when the 85-year-old woman I had just admitted with end stage heart failure began having trouble breathing. While I knew she did not desire “aggressive measures” taken to prolong her life, I wondered what that meant in the context of this moment. Even though I was a young medical resident, I knew without swift intervention, she would not be able to survive the night. I ran into the waiting room to search for her son, her medical decision maker, but he had gone home for the night.

I returned to the bedside to see that my patient was tiring as her breathing was becoming shallow and fast. She was awake and I sat down to explain why she was feeling breathless. I explained that her condition had rapidly worsened and asked if she had ever considered a scenario where she may need a breathing tube. She had not. As her oxygen levels dropped, it quickly became clear that we had to act. What wasn’t clear to me was whether this frail woman would actually survive this hospital stay, and if she truly understood what intubation and mechanical ventilation were and whether this would cause her to suffer.

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empty hospital bed

The COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights the Necessity of Advance Care Planning

By Marian Grant

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the importance of clearly expressing personal wishes for medical care in emergency situations.

Health systems and providers across the country are seeing how important it is that all of us discuss our medical goals in advance. Not having one’s medical goals known in advance puts a burden on frontline clinicians and loved ones, because it leaves important medical decisions up to them.

You can and should speak up about the kind of medical care you would want, and tell doctors what matters to you. You also should tell those who matter most to you what you’d want if you couldn’t make decisions for yourself.

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empty hospital bed

COVID-19 Underscores Racial Disparity in Advance Directives

Cross-posted from The Hastings Center Bioethics Forum, where it originally appeared on May 26, 2020. 

By Stephen P. Wood

During a recent shift, I was the primary provider for a man in his 70s who was brought in by ambulance with respiratory failure. He had been sick for two days with a fever and a cough, weak and short of breath. The chest x-ray performed at his bedside revealed the diffuse, fluffy markings that are familiar signs of pneumonitis from COVID-19.

After giving him oxygen to improve his breathing, treating his fever, and running tests that are standard for COVID-19 patients, I clicked the admission button to cue him up for a bed. My patient and I then discussed goals of care and had a frank discussion about advance directives. He did not have an advance directive, but he knew he did not want to be resuscitated. He did not want to be put on a ventilator, go on dialysis, or receive artificial nutrition. He was quite clear and did not hesitate about these decisions. We signed the advance directive and filed it away in his chart.

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Hastening Death to Avoid Prolonged Dementia

By Norman L. Cantor

The scourge of Alzheimer’s is daunting. For me, the specter of being mired in progressively degenerative dementia is an intolerably degrading prospect. One avoidance tactic — suicide while still competent — risks a premature demise while still enjoying a tolerable lifestyle.

The question arises whether an alternative tactic — an advance directive declining all life-sustaining intervention once a certain point of debilitation is reached — might be preferable as a device to avert a prolonged, unwanted limbo.

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Book Review: Phyllis Shacter’s “Choosing to Die” (A Story of Death by Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking)

For some people, being mired in progressively degenerative dementia is an intolerably distasteful prospect.  Precipitous mental deterioration would, for them, indelibly soil the lifetime image to be left with survivors and would pose a repugnant physical and emotional burden upon caregivers.  They know that lingering in an utterly dysfunctional cognitive state can continue for many years.

One tactic to avoid prolonged dementia, after initial diagnosis, is to take steps to end one’s existence while still competent.  And one lawful method of self-arranged death is by voluntarily stopping eating and drinking (VSED).  Strict cessation of nutrition and hydration will typically precipitate death by dehydration within 10 to 14 days.  The patient will likely lapse into delirium or confusion after a number of days and remain semi-conscious or unconscious for the duration.

The VSED route is derided by some sources as a repulsive ordeal both for the patient and surrounding caregivers.  The detractors portray the process as both torturous and excessively undignified.  They envision death “by starvation” as entailing unavoidable suffering.  They perceive offensive indignity in the accompanying erosion of mental clarity (delirium) and in days of semi-conscious or unconscious lingering.  This liminal period is deemed demeaning to the patient and “a horrible vigil” for surrounding family watching the wasting patient die. Read More

Changing the Paradigm of Advance Directives to Avoid Prolonged Dementia

by Norman L. Cantor

In the early days of living wills — the 1970’s and 1980’s – a major objective was to avoid being maintained on burdensome medical machinery in a highly debilitated status at the end stage of a fatal affliction.  The contemporaneous legislation endorsing advance directives was typically geared to “terminal illness” (meaning likely death within 6 months).  The distasteful specter was a moribund patient tethered to burdensome interventions like a respirator or a dialysis machine despite an unavoidable, looming demise.  A common short-form living will rejected life support that “only prolongs the dying process” for a patient in “a terminal condition.”[i]

Another specter was being medically sustained in an utterly dismal quality of life – such as permanent unconsciousness without awareness or interaction with one’s environment.  The contemporaneous legislation explicitly authorized advance directives seeking to avoid medical maintenance in a permanently vegetative state.  And several landmark cases authorizing surrogate end-of-life determinations involved permanently unconscious patients. See Quinlan (N.J. 1976); Brophy, (Mass. 1986); Browning (Fla. 1990); Schiavo (Fla. 2005).

With the increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and similar degenerative dementias, the focus of advance directives has changed for some people.  The primary specter is neither an unavoidable looming demise nor the insensate limbo of permanent unconsciousness.  Rather, the emerging concern is protracted maintenance during progressively increasing cognitive dysfunction and helplessness.  For some, being mired in a demented state is an intolerably degrading prospect well before the advanced stage when the person no longer recognizes loved ones and is totally uncomprehending.

For people like me who see even moderate dementia as an intolerably demeaning status staining their life image, their advance directive may seek to facilitate death by declining even simplistic medical interventions like antibiotics.  Our hope is that death will soon ensue when an infection is left untreated or when artificial nutrition and hydration is withheld in the face of an eating disorder.  Read More