Friday, January 04, 2013

The High Personal Cost of End of Life Care

According to Ezekiel J. Emanuel,
IT is conventional wisdom that end-of-life care is an increasingly huge proportion of health care spending. I’ve often heard it said that people spend more on health care in the year before they die than they do in the entire rest of their lives. If we don’t address these costs, the story goes, we can never control health care inflation.

Wrong. Here are the real numbers. The roughly 6 percent of Medicare patients who die each year do make up a large proportion of Medicare costs: 27 to 30 percent. But this figure has not changed significantly in decades.
It seems reasonable to infer that by "figure" Emanual means "percentage", as it is implausible that the dollar figure expended on care during the last year of life has not changed significantly "in decades". So what does that percentage figure mean in terms of dollars?
The Medicare program provides subsidized medical insurance for the elderly and for some disabled people. Spending for Medicare totaled about $555 billion in 2012, providing coverage for about 50 million people.
Let's use the low-end figure, 27%. Emanuel is instructing us that 6% of Medicare recipients consumed 27% of $555 billion - let's round that off to $150 billion for 3 million Medicare recipients, an average of $50,000 per person. That, in contrast to $8,617 on average for everybody else. Let's not forget, also, that many of those patients will be in long-term care facilities for much of the year, subsidized by their savings and, once those are depleted, by Medicaid. While the proportion may not be rising, the dollar amount is rising - faster than inflation - and while the numbers bear out the position that people don't, on average, spend "spend more on health care in the year before they die than they do in the entire rest of their lives" the numbers do suggest an enormous expenditure on medical care for patients who receive little benefit from that care - and perhaps pay an enormous personal price on top of the financial cost.

And the total number of Americans, not just older people, who die every year — less than 1 percent of the population — account for much less of total health care spending, just 10 to 12 percent.
Given that younger Americans are much more likely to die from traumatic injury, it's not really a surprise that when they're included in the picture the percentage declines. But as Emanuel surely knows, although care for traumatic injury can be phenomenally expensive, people are not actually talking about car crashes when they are talking about the high cost of end-of-life care.

Emanuel makes a better point about cost reduction,
The more important issue is that just because we spend a lot on end-of-life care does not mean we can save a lot. We do know that costs for dying patients vary widely among hospitals, which suggests that we can do better. And yet no one can reliably say what specific changes would significantly lower costs. There is no body of well-conducted research studies that has proved how to save 5, 10, much less 20 percent.
That's true in part. There are patients who are clearly terminal, but whose families insist upon additional treatment (sometimes overruling the wishes of their loved one) at significant cost. Also, if you think through the logical implications of a typical voucher plan, there appears to be a significant population of people who would "save" money simply by cutting off payment for treatment. While it remains correct that there's no good way to define, in advance, when the last year of life begins and what approaches to treating a specific medical condition will save money without compromising care, if you're willing to be sufficiently mercenary to ration care and make that $50K figure impossible for the average elderly person to reach, you'll "save" money.

If you want to try to identify means of saving money - approaches to end-of-life care that avoid the cost of hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and the like - it's necessary to engage in the analysis of available data on approaches to patient care, costs and outcomes. If you want patients to be informed of their options, including the fact that by foregoing the aggressive treatment of what is likely to be a fatal disease they may both live longer and have a better quality of life, you have to actually educate the patient - and as Emanuel notes the last effort to introduce that sort of education on a widespread basis collapsed under Republican hysterics about "death panels".

Emanuel is correct that doing nothing to improve the quality of care for the dying is not an acceptable approach to end-of-lie care, but at the same time he suggests that we're doing very little. Emanuel supports end-of-life counseling for patients (the so-called "death panels"), increased availability and use of palliative care, and revised criteria for admission to hospice care. But we can also do some comparative outcome research, which might help us create better criteria for who truly is approaching the end of life, and what treatments that might represent top notch quality of care for a younger patient may undermine quality of life and perhaps even shorten the remaining lifespan of an elderly patient.

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