Major overhaul needed in end-of life care for patients with dementia

Three University of Chicago geriatricians are calling for creative and wide-reaching solutions to the problem of sub-optimal end-of-life care for patients with dementia. An estimated 500,000 people die every year in the United States suffering from Alzheimer's or related diseases and many of them receive inadequate pain control, are subjected to ineffective and invasive therapies such as tube feedings, and do not receive the benefits of hospice care.

"The nature of the illness is the root cause of the problem," said Greg Sachs, M.D., professor of medicine, section chief of geriatrics at the University of Chicago and first author of the study. "Our health care system is oriented toward treatment of acute illness but dementia produces a long, slow, unpredictable decline."

Their study is one of four in the October, 2004, issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine that focus on the expanding role of primary care physicians in the care of patients with chronic and ultimately terminal illness a growing, difficult problem for physicians and for society.

Death used to come quickly, but now it "fades in slowly -- over years or even decades," notes Christopher Callahan, M.D., of the Indiana University Center for Aging Research, in an editorial that ties together the four papers. The pace of death, he adds, "has slowed so suddenly that we seem to have lost our ability to recognize it." As a result, "we find ourselves poorly trained, our systems poorly designed, and our patients and communities poorly equipped."

"All the barriers and problems seem to converge," he adds, in end-of-life care for patients with dementia.

The Chicago geriatricians list the barriers to optimal care for such patients and suggest ways to get past them.

The first hurdle is the unwillingness of physicians and families to think of dementia as a terminal illness. Patients with dementia decline slowly, with long periods of st

Contact: John Easton
773 702 6241
University of Chicago Medical Center

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