Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Advice to the Presidential Candidates on End-of-Life Care Issues

by Christian Sinclair

Tonight at the Democratic Town Hall, a New Hampshire voter, Mr Jim Kinhan asked a very important question of candidate Senator Hillary Clinton about care at the end-of-life and personal choices. While his question may not have been direct, gauging from Mr. Kinhan’s recent editorial in the Concord Monitor, it appears the focus of the question was intended to be about the challenging debate on physician assisted death. (Full Transcript here - Key Portion excerpted at the end of this post)
This can clearly be a vexing question for any presidential candidate in either party. So I’m here to offer my guidance and expertise on how to best answer this question that will actually do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Let’s look again at key points in Mr. Kinhan’s question to make sure we are addressing his concerns:
  • He accepts that his prognosis is limited, but notes that he is still active and functional.
  • He is open about his spiritual needs.
  • He is looking for leadership to advance the public discussion around personal health care choices.
  • He voices concerns not only for the patient but also the caregiver.
  • He wants life to be enhanced but also the end-of-life to have dignity.
So Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, here is how you can answer this question:


Thank you for sharing your personal story Mr. Kinhan. To see that a serious illness won’t prevent you from advocating for important issues is inspiring to me and I’m sure this whole auditorium.1[Applause]. You mentioned personal choices and dignity for those with advanced illness and a possible poor prognosis. Our health care system is designed to use the most advanced diagnostic tools and cutting-edge therapies. And while these can be very expensive even putting people into medical bankruptcy, we often fall short on providing the things that matter most to patients and their families.

One growing new area in healthcare finding ways to bring value and quality (and without staggering cost increases) is palliative care. You may not know very much about palliative care, but when Americans find out about it, over 90% want palliative care.2

A doctor, nurse, social worker, and as you mentioned spirituality3, a chaplain, and others are on your side; spending time with you; skilled in communicating tough issues; relieving your symptoms and helping support you and your family. But right now we only have 1 palliative care doctor for every 1,200 people with a serious illness. And we need more social workers, nurses, chaplains and others trained in this skilled care. In my presidency, I will work to increase training and research into making palliative care more accessible for all patients facing serious illness.

In addition, I will re-examine the limitations of the hospice benefit, which presents a tough choice about focusing on comfort only. What if you could have the dignity and support hospice brings without having to make one of the toughest decisions to forego potentially life-prolonging therapy?

And if we do those two things well, then we can really help the family caregivers who provide $470 billion worth of care. All of it unpaid. [Applause] We can give them back some of the dignity that illnesses like cancer and heart failure and Alzheimer’s rob from all of us.4

And as for the growing national debate on physician assisted suicide or as some call it aid-in-dying, states are grappling with this very issue, which highlights the importance of states rights to settle these difficult social questions.5 While I recognize there are surveys showing a majority of American’s support the ability to end their own life when facing a terminal illness, it is important to be cautious in opening new rights so we may protect those most vulnerable to abuse by those same rights.

While physician assisted dying laws are used by far less than 1% of people dying in states where it is legal, my job as president is to do the most good for the most people. That is why - to help 100% of people facing serious illness - I would want to fund more research and training into palliative care, re-examine the limitations on the hospice benefit, and figure out how we can better support family caregivers and patients so they have dignity throughout their illness and not just at the very end.


So there you go politicians. I tried to answer in a way that may fit your style and needs and still gets to the important issues. If you have a particular area you want to emphasize more with your base, I'm always available to talk to people about palliative care. Or I can direct you to many smart people who can do the same!

PS Politicians and advocates of palliative care also should support the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (PCHETA) and check out the advocacy pages for the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) and the Hospice Action Network (HAN).

PPS More interesting background on Mr. Kinhan - "I'm not living with cancer, I'm walking with cancer." Concord Monitor video featuring Mr. Kinhan.

Christian Sinclair, MD, FAAHPM, is a palliative care doctor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, who was a committee member on the 2014 Institute of Medicine report Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences Near the End of Life. He is also president-elect for the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. He has no professional or private stance on physician assisted death. This piece is not representative of any of the above organizations and is his personal opinion.

1 - Let's make sure you are being human AND presidential. Empathize! And go for applause lines.
2 - Say it three times and make it stick!
3 - Callback to the original question. Show you're listening and this isn't a canned response.
4 - Everyone knows someone who has been an unpaid family caregiver. It's tough.
5 - Tried to do my best impression of a politician waffling here. 

Excerpt of CNN transcript: 
COOPER: I want you to meet Mr. Jim Kinhan (ph). He's a Democrat who says he is supporting you.

JIM KINHAN: Hello, Madam Secretary.

CLINTON: Thank you.

KINHAN: I'm very pleased to see you. This may come a little bit from right field, this may seem, but it's very personal to me and resonates probably with many other people who are elderly dealing with health issues. The question is coming to me as a person who is walking with colon cancer. And I'm walking with colon cancer with the word terminal very much in my vocabulary, comfortably and spiritually. But I wonder what leadership you could offer within an executive role that might help advance the respectful conversation that is needed around this personal choice that people may make, as we age and deal with health issues or be the caregivers of those people, to help enhance and -- their end of life with dignity.

CLINTON: Well, first of all, thank you for being here. Thank you so much for being part of this great New Hampshire primary process and thank you for support. And I really appreciate your asking the question. And I have to tell you, this is the first time I've been asked that question.

KINHAN: I -- I figured that.

CLINTON: Yes. I -- I really -- I really...

KINHAN: Maybe any candidate.

CLINTON: And I thank you for it, because we need to have a conversation in our country. There are states, as you know...


CLINTON: -- that are moving to open up the opportunity without criminal liability for people to make this decision, in consultation by their families, even, in some cases, with medical professionals. But the issue is whether the medical professionals want to be involved or just be counselors. So it is a crucial issue that people deserve to understand from their own ethical, religious, faith-based perspective. So here's how I think about it. I want -- I want, as president, to try to catalyze that debate because I -- I believe you're right, this is going to become an issue more and more...

KINHAN: Exactly.

CLINTON: -- often. We are, on the good side, having many people live longer, but often, then, with very serious illnesses that they can be sustained on, but at some point, don't want to continue with the challenges that poses. So I don't have any easy or glib answer for you. I think I would want to really immerse myself in the -- the -- the ethical writings, the health writings, the scientific writings, the religious writings. I know some other countries, the Netherlands and others, have a quite open approach. I'd like to know what their experience has been. Because we -- we have to be sure that nobody is coerced, nobody is under duress. And that is a difficult line to draw. So I thank you -- I thank you so much for raising this really important absolutely critical question that we're all going to have to do some thinking about.


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