I am a big fan of Dr. Kevin Pho and his blog at KevinMD; I have read hundreds of posts on his site written by hundreds of authors, and while I may not have agreed with everything written, I never took issue with any single article…until yesterday.
Dr. Ashley Sumrall wrote an article titled “Does Brittany Maynard’s decision affect the future of oncology?“. My critique of what Dr. Sumrall wrote has nothing to do with the morality or politics behind medically assisted dying; it is about the ethics behind publicly questioning any person’s medical decisions. Let’s get to the article (excerpts from the article in italics, my responses in bold).
I recently read that Brittany Maynard took her own life. Plagued by glioblastoma, she chose to reject chemotherapy, radiation, and hospice. Tomorrow, I have a schedule packed with glioblastoma patients who personify courage, determination, and faith.
Implicit here is that Brittany lacked courage, determination and faith. This is what first got me thinking that if Brittany’s friends and family were to read this, they might rightfully be furious. I am furious on behalf of Brittany and her family.
As I have followed her story, I have so many questions. I wonder what she was told by her doctors. She states that she visited with “many experts.”
I love the quotation marks around ‘many experts’. Does Dr. Sumrall know which doctors Brittany visited? Or how many? Are those doctors not “expert” enough since they didn’t coerce Brittany into pursuing radiation and chemotherapy?
Also, as physicians, we are often wrong when asked the dreaded “how long do I have to live” question. If you corner an oncologist, the most honest one will tell you they don’t know. Many will quote “six months or less” for most stage IV or grade IV cancers. Often, this answer is based less on evidence and more on the need to end a difficult conversation.
I sincerely hope Dr. Sumrall, or any other oncologist, doesn’t answer any question simply to “end a difficult conversation”. Almost every interaction oncologists have with their patients are difficult. We are trained to act compassionately for patients facing a potentially terminal illness. How else are we supposed to answer mortality questions? We use reported evidence on median survival, and try to adjust based on patient factors for the person sitting in front of us.
And, more importantly, how much time did her doctors spend with her? In an era where physician visits grow shorter and shorter, were they watching the clock or the patient? Was she being squeezed in for a consultation? Did they know the impact of their words would be so large? Did Brittany know the truth about chemotherapy and radiation for this disease, as the side effects are vastly different than those from the omnipresent breast cancer?
Now that’s called “throwing your colleagues under the bus”. Again, simply because Brittany did not pursue every treatment possible does not mean negligence on the part of her treatment team. In fact, consults are usually much quicker for patients who agree to treatment; when patients are unsure or wish to forego treatment, the conversation is normally much more in depth to explore the patient’s reasons and ensure they are making the best choice for themselves.
Was she cognitively impaired by her illness, and did she fully understand? Was she worried about disappointing those who viewed her as a role model for assisted suicide?
It is completely unethical to question a patient’s competence and motives; even though confidentiality is not broken since the author never knew the patient, it is still inappropriate and hurtful to speculate based on pure conjecture.
I know nothing of her case, but I know this: I have seen people live for years with treatment.
The first half of this sentence should have been the first and only sentence of the entire post.
And the end is hard, but not usually painful. Suffering can always be diminished with properly trained physicians and nurses.
Pain is not the only cause of suffering. Intractable nausea, shortness of breath, inability to eat, knowing your family will watch you wither away and die, existential and spiritual distress – these are all causes of suffering that even the best medical care CANNOT always manage.
Brain tumor patients require and deserve every resource available. The families that I have cared for have been remarkably grateful for the extra time I have spent with them, discussing death, palliation, and faith.
Again, implicit here is the completely unfounded supposition that Brittany did not get time to discuss death and palliation with her physicians.
I fear that more cancer patients will seek out assisted suicide as an option due to fear of the unknown. Many will have a myopic view of their cancer or therapy options due to misinformation from their care teams or the Internet.
Why in the world would care teams provide “misinformation” to their patients? Is the entire oncology community outside of the author incompetent?
Their decisions may be colored by the fear of death and dying that pervades our society. Is this where oncology is headed? I pray not.
Is this where physician blogging is headed? I pray not.