, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 28-36

Ethical dilemmas in hospice and palliative care

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Abstract

In order to understand some of the ethical dilemmas that face hospice programs in the United States, one must understand the Medicare Hospice Benefit, which is the model by which hospice programs provide palliative care to terminally ill patients in the United States. Unlike palliative care programs outside the United States, patients must have a prognosis of 6 months or less to receive hospice care under the Medicare Hospice Benefit. Care is reimbursed on a per diem basis, and inpatient care is restricted to pain and symptom management that cannot be managed in another setting. Ethical dilemmas that face physicians referring patients to hospice programs include the ability of clinicians to predict accurately a patient prognosis of 6 months or less, and to what extent hospice programs and clinicians are obligated to provide patients with full information about their illness, as the Medicare Hospice Benefit requires that patients sign an informed consent in order to elect the hospice benefit. There are ethical dilemmas that affect day-to-day patient management in palliative care programs including physician concern over the use of morphine because of possible respiratory depression in the advanced cancer patient, the question of providing enteral or parenteral nutritional support to patients who refuse to eat near the end of life, and the question of providing parenteral fluids to patients who are unable to take fluids during the terminal phases of illness. A final ethical dilemma concerns the methodology for quality of life research in palliative care. By following current research dogma, and only considering patient-generated data as valid, the patient population that most needs to be studied is excluded. A new methodology specifically for palliative care research is needed to provide information on the patients who are cognitively or physically impaired and unable to provide input regarding their needs near the end of life.
Presented as an invited lecture at the 6th International Symposium: Supportive Care in Cancer, New Orleans, La., USA, 2–5 March 1994