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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Hourglass

A Medical Student Reflects on the Value of Time During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Jess Ma

He passed away on the 107th day. After I got home in the evening, I wrote down everything I could remember about him in my journal. For many days after his death, I often dreamed I was standing in that fluorescently bright ICU room. In the dreams, I would be watching him, and then he would wake up and start speaking to me, with those bright blue eyes glittering with animation and life. I always awoke feeling a little unsettled, not by his death, but rather by the fact that I knew so intimately the ways in which he was kept alive, and yet nothing about the life he lived until just hours before his final breath.

He was an existing patient on the unit when I joined the surgical ICU team, and for 10 days I followed him, tracking how every organ system was doing each day. Everyone on the team knew there was only one way this would end; his quality of life had deteriorated so rapidly since the early summer, after a bout of necrotizing pancreatitis and multiple tragic complications; he was barely able to interact with his own body, much less his environment, and his life was propped up precariously by every possible machine that could perform the function of a vital organ. For him, no medical intervention would add more significant chapters to his story. It was just a matter of when his daughter would be ready to close the book.

Because of the pandemic, visitors were only allowed after 12pm each day. When his adult daughter came to visit each afternoon, I was told to avoid intruding on their cherished private time together. I only ever really saw her shadow behind the drawn curtain as I walked past the room; and I knew that one of the surgeons on the service (a group of surgeons rotated between trauma, acute care, and surgical ICU) would routinely give her calls or meet up with her to discuss how her father was doing, even on days he had off. Surgeons are not generally thought off as doctors who can spend a lot of time just talking to patients – after all, in the time he spent on one of those daily conversations, he could complete an appendectomy. Though neither he, nor the rest of the team, could offer a magic solution, what he offered was crucial – his time.

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A patient is seen in the intensive care unit for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Thoracic Diseases Hospital of Athens in Greece on November 8, 2020.

Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Importance of Humanism in Medicine

By John C. Messinger

On March 17, 2020, in the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) released a statement strongly urging medical schools to pause all clinical rotations and patient-facing activities.

While there was a clear necessity to limit student participation as a means of reserving PPE and creating a safe environment for patients and health care providers, restricting medical students from clinical settings has drastically changed their education.

As a first-year medical student removed from training at the time of this announcement, my greatest fear has been that these changes will alter my approach to care for patients.

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Doctor Holding Cell Phone. Cell phones and other kinds of mobile devices and communications technologies are of increasing importance in the delivery of health care. Photographer Daniel Sone.

Providing Cancer Care in the Age of COVID-19

By Samyukta Mullangi, Johnetta Blakeley, and Stephen Schleicher

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges to oncology care; an area of medicine that typically involves frequent, in-person patient visits to complete a course of treatment.

In many ways, COVID-19 has served as a stress test for the specialty, and has catalyzed adaptive changes that we hope will make the oncology care, and the health care system in general, more resilient going forward.

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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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