Thursday, January 17, 2013

No Answers - Part 2: Informed Consent

Continued from No Answers - Part 1: The Oncologist

Besides the unresolved issues on my mind from when my dad
was sick that relate to the oncologist on Dad's case, another
thing that concerns me is the way that informed consent was 
handled when Dad was in the hospital.

Informed consent is the process by which a fully informed patient participates in making decisions about his own health care. It originates from the legal and ethical right the patient has to direct what happens to his body and from the ethical duty of the physician to involve the patient in the management of the patient's own health care through educating him about his condition and any proposed treatments as well as reasonable alternatives and the reasoning behind the physician's recommendation.  It also includes informing the patient of the risks and benefits of the suggested course of action and any other possible decisions after which the patient can use that information to either accept or decline the treatment.  

In cases when the patient is deemed unable to participate in this process, another person can be appointed to serve as proxy through a medical power of attorney or other legal process.  

When it became clear that my dad was not consistently oriented (i.e. he was confused about certain things) upon hospital admission, informed consent fell to my mom on his behalf.  According to the definition of informed consent, this meant that she was to be educated about Dad's condition and of the options for treatment and the advantages and disadvantages of each.  This is basic Medical Ethics 101, a process of which any physician - and certainly any surgeon - should be extremely aware.

This is where my question comes in:  Why was that process not followed?  

At admission, a neurosurgeon was assigned to my dad's case, and right away he started saying that a specific type of surgery called "debulking" needed to occur just as soon as Dad was stabilized seizure-wise.  We were never given any choice of neurosurgeon, and no alternatives to this procedure were ever presented to us.

Prior to the surgery, my mom, serving as Dad's medical power of attorney, was directed to sign the consent form that listed all the risks, but really she didn't have a choice in the matter - what was she going to do: not give the consent when we'd been told he needed the surgery to save his life??  We were 100% given the impression that the neurosurgeon on the case was the only option we had for whatever reason and that, without that surgery at that time, he would die, right then.

could possibly have been delayed or maybe even avoided 
with no change in prognosis.  [When we met with the team of top neuro-oncologists at Duke later, we learned that the aggressive growth pattern of GBM meant that it doubled in size every three weeks and that, because of the time required for recovery after surgery before treatment could be started, since the surgery the remaining portion of the tumor had grown to almost half of what the size of the tumor was originally.  In fact, the Duke doctors said they felt there had been "very little surgical benefit" for Dad.

I know now that there were other surgical and non-surgical options that should have at least been discussed with us, if only to explain why they might not have been recommended by that particular neurosurgeon in my dad's case.  Because they weren't even mentioned, though, I don't know if they were viable options or not.  At that point, though, we didn't know there were any other choices and we weren't told any differently, and so we just went with what was presented to us as the only course of action.  And so I am left to wonder - why didn't the surgeon even consider trying other techniques that are frequently discussed as a treatment for brain cancer, those that are showing evidence as giving a better surgical and prognostic outcome - things like intraoperative stimulation mapping and Gamma Knife radiation?  Why didn't he bring up the option of delaying surgery to investigate the use of gliadel wafers (which are implanted to deliver medicine right at the tumor site) or to look at the possibility of taking a sample of the tumor for use either for testing to see if the cells were chemo-resistant or for an dendritic cell tumor vaccine?  

Back then, though, we didn't even know what questions to ask, or even that we should be asking questions.  We didn't think about getting a second opinion or doing a background check of any kind on the neurosurgeon, at least partially because we were told that time was of the essence.  I think we assumed that particular neurosurgeon was the best at that hospital or at least that he was the neurosurgeon with the first opening in his surgical schedule.  It seems crazy to me now when I think that I never asked how many of that type of surgery that neurosurgeon had done or how many patients with that same diagnosis were treated in that hospital per year.  [I later asked a nurse on the oncology floor how often they saw GBM patients there, and she said once or twice a year.]  I remember all too well that we were in such a state of shock and panic and so frantic to try to take care of and to protect Dad that we didn't have time to research things.  We just trusted the advice we were given and forged ahead.

These days, I have a note in my cell phone that lists things I want to remember if I am ever in a similar situation (Is that doomsday thinking or preparedness??  I'm not sure.).  It includes these statements:

*When a doctor (or other medical staff member) makes a recommendation, ask what else they considered or could have considered and WHY they came to the conclusion that they should recommend that specific thing.
*When making a decision as to whom (or to where) to turn for care, directly ask WHAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT FROM OTHER DOCTORS (or what sets this facility or service apart?)? 
*ALWAYS ask what that person's (or that facility's) experience with that diagnosis, that surgical procedure, etc. is SPECIFICALLY, termed in frequencies and outcomes.

In my dad's case, though, without a doubt, we did what we knew to do.  The rest just wasn't something a person would know in everyday life.  Was the right choice made?  Yes, based on the options we were given at the time.  What would we have done, if we knew then what we know now??  Of course I will never know, nor would I if we had been presented with all of the possible choices and then given the opportunity to select one.  But at least in the "fully informed" scenario, we would not feel as if there were facts we weren't told or options that weren't considered.  Today, in the midst of my grief, I certainly don't feel that there was any effort at all by the medical team to try to individualize Dad's treatment, and I am left to wonder why we were only given certain information.  Did the medical team actually feel as if it were our responsibility to do the research and then to ask questions about the other possible treatments?  Did they have such as strong opinion about what the best course of action was that they didn't tell us what else could have been done?  Did they think we were somehow incapable of understanding the more complex information about other options?  Did they think we (or Dad) weren't deserving of knowing about those alternatives?  Did they themselves not know what else was available?  Did they lack the training in performing the other techniques?  Chalk that up to the list of things we will never really know.

1 comment:

  1. Steph, I know that you all did the very best that you could, at that time, in making the decisions for your Dad. But, I would have to agree that every patient (especially cancer patients) need to be given ALL options and information on ALL courses of possible treatment. That is where the medical field is quite lacking....more than just the term of "bedside manners" but "bedside knowledge" on each patient's individual diagnosis should be given.
    ~Vicki Swor