Columnist Dr Shaba Nabi fears doctors’ lack of time means drugs are replacing holistic care at the end of life
Being faced with a dying patient when working as a busy on-call GP evokes feelings of both heartsink and reward. Heartsink, because we know the duty screen will start piling up while we navigate our way through a life that we have not previously touched. We know that providing comfort to those reaching the end of life is one of the few areas where we can make a positive difference to our patients, so why does it all feel so robotic?
End-of-life conversations could be the pinnacle of good communication, as we understand a person’s values and what matters to them most. Yet we don’t have the chance to practise these essential skills as frequently and in as much depth as we would like, due to the pressures of our workload.
So, when my duty screen flags up that an 89-year-old woman may be nearing the end of life, instead of thinking about providing her with holistic care, I worry about retrieving the F12 protocol, which will write out all the end-of-life care drugs for me.
But on this recent occasion, I didn’t reach for my prescription pad. Instead, I decided to understand the world of the patient and what her relatives thought she wanted. Fortunately, her daughter was accepting of her demise and had no unrealistic expectations about intervention. As her mother appeared comfortable with no agitation, I opted to convert her small dose of codeine to a low-dose opiate patch to maintain a background level of analgesia. I later found this was not recommended by palliative care prescribing guidelines, but a shared decision-making dialogue with the patient’s daughter, led to this approach. Although this conversation took significantly longer than a brief instruction about just-in-case medications, I felt momentarily content that I had practised according to the family’s values.
As expected, the duty screen had multiplied, and I didn’t give the patient another thought until her death notification came through. Curious about the outcome of my on-call decision, I noticed she’d been prescribed a syringe driver full of drugs at the request of the community nurse team, a day after I’d spoken to her daughter. It is possible that she had become distressed or agitated, but it made me reflect on all the deaths I have seen in my lifetime, professionally and personally.
In the earlier part of my career, it was common to prescribe syringe drivers for patients dying of cancer, but not for those dying of frailty in old age. In the same way that CPR is futile if organs are naturally failing, one would assume this type of death would also be a natural fading away, without the need for extra drugs.
Perhaps I am swayed by the experience of watching my mother die three years ago. Her GP also converted her arthritis pain relief to a patch, but no other medical intervention was needed and she died peacefully in her own home, surrounded by her grandchildren singing to her.
Is the chemicalisation of the ageing process and death a response to the lack of time and spiritual support? It is much easier to sign off an automated prescription than to explore symptoms and values. And if you don’t have a loving family keeping vigil at your bedside, the most humane action may be to obliterate any fear or emotional pain using chemicals.
But given our lack of time, and in the absence of any certainty around end-of-life comfort, I guess it’s hard to justify any other approach to alleviate potential pain.
Dr Shaba Nabi is a GP trainer in Bristol. Read more of her blogs here
This blog was originally published in Pulse’s September issue