Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Against Euphemisms - Part 2 - Compassionate Extubation

by Drew Rosielle

(This is the second of four posts by Drew on the language we use in hospice and palliative care. You may want to read his reflection on 10 years of practice or his first post on euphemisms - "Comfort Care." - Ed.)

Euphemistic phrase #2 that I'd like to never hear again: "Compassionate extubation."

By which people typically mean 'extubating someone who is on invasive mechanical ventilation who is not expected to survive long, to a plan of care that focuses on symptom alleviation.'

What bugs me about it is the use of the term 'compassionate' to try to encompass the idea of a dying patient, care goals focused on symptom alleviation and providing a comfortable death, etc. One could totally lack any compassion for a patient and agree to extubate them expecting them to die, based on a purely legalistic interpretation of contemporary medical ethics (patients have a right to say No, etc), and proceed to 'compassionately extubate' the patient, right? Compassion needn't enter into it.

I also dislike, and I have to admit this is a really visceral thing for me, the claiming of the mantle of 'compassion' for things we do in palliative care. It can imply that other things in medicine aren't compassionate, or are less so than us pallatieurs. Is the ED doctor who diagnoses your mother with severe hypoxemic respiratory failure from community acquired pneumonia and intubates her in the emergency department in order to save her life lacking in compassion? Is the critical care team who cares for a patient through ARDS into recovery, and extubates the patient to a facemask and ongoing aggressive management to, you know, save their life, lacking in compassion when they do that? Why do we need to add valorizing, morally-laden language to this act when we do it? Why not just 'discontinuing mechanical ventilation with a plan to keep a patient comfortable as they die?' or some such variation. I know, I know, it's too much of a mouthful, but if you don't object to 'comfort measures only' as discussed in Part 1, you could say "Discontinuing mechanical ventilation to a CMO plan of care' etc.

There are also variations 'palliative extubation,' or, god-save-us-all 'palliative liberation from the ventilator' etc.

(See the discussion on 'palliative sedation' in part 3 for why I don't like using 'palliative' in these contexts. In short, we do a lot of things in palliative care, and I don't see how it clarifies anything or helps anyone to associate our name which is already used in a bajillion different ways to this practice.)

What I dislike about 'liberation' is that is it unnecessarily moralistic. Why even introduce such a judgement? This is a technology which saves countless lives every year, not something to be 'liberated' from. If someone is receiving mechanical ventilation and it becomes apparent that it is not going to help them survive, or be a bridge to an acceptable recovery, or otherwise is against the patient's wishes/values, then we stop it, and provide appropriate ongoing medical care. Let's just say that, not that we are heroically 'liberating' patients. That's how it reads to me, as unnecessarily heroic.

I know some, patiens/families view it as a liberation and that's fine, that's a good thing, but that doesn't mean we should routinely call this event a liberation. Some patients quite happily call it 'pulling the plug' which doesn't mean I'm about to call it taht. Imagine the family who is agreeing to the vent being stopped but remain ambivalent, conflicted, worried are they doing the right thing, the moral thing, the loving thing and a doctor blithely walk in and start talking about doing this thing which will lead to their loved one dying quickly and you don't want them to die but in your heart know it's time and you've got to let this happen but it's so tough and the doctor starts calling it a 'liberation.' I'd be like W-T-F?? if I was that family member.

There's also the phrase 'terminal extubation.' I don't use it, but it bugs me less than 'compassionate' or 'palliative' extubation, because I think it's less euphemistic. However it's still not clear, not precise, could be interpreted many ways, so not so helpful. 'Discontinuing mechanical ventilation' is just fine.

Drew Rosielle, MD is a palliative care physician at University of Minnesota Health in Minnesota. He founded Pallimed in 2005. For more Pallimed posts by Drew click here. 

Illustration Credit: Christian Sinclair CC-BY-SA-NC

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