Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Liverpool Care Pathway Kerfuffle

The British press has been hurling around various accusations about the use and misuse of the Liverpool Care Pathway for the Dying Patient ("LCP") for a couple of years now. The LCP is a UK care pathway covering palliative care and nursing options for patients at the end of life. It includes prompts for management of a wide range of end-of-life symptoms; crucially for the debate, it provides for cessation of artificial nutrition and hydration for some patients. The latest round of adverse coverage is largely based on findings of an audit undertaken by the LCP's developer; the audit found that in 44% percent of cases in which a decision was made to place a patient on the LCP, there was no record of a discussion with the patient about that decision; and that one-third of patients' families were never given an informational leaflet describing the LCP. Additionally, there are accusations that hospitals are putting people on the LCP who shouldn't be, perhaps in order to secure financial rewards that flow to facilities that reach targets for LCP use. These allegations, combined with earlier alarmist claims that the LCP was being used to "euthanize" scores of thousands of patients who weren't dying, resulted last month in the government's announcing the launch of an independent investigation into the use of the LCP.

Since that announcement, though, an additional accusation has been leveled in the Daily Mail (which has been pressing the LCP issue all along). Citing this anonymous article from BMJ about withdrawing feeding from newborns, the Daily Mail claimed that babies were being put on the LCP. The trouble is, the BMJ article was written by a physician not based in the UK, and not using the LCP. Of course, that didn't prevent the Daily Mail piece from being picked up here in the states by, for example, Wesley Smith, whose sensitive treatment of the subject, entitled "Dehydrating Disabled Babies in UK Hospitals" ran in the National Review Online. "This is what happens when a country allows bureaucrats to control healthcare," he intoned--and then drew the "parallel" to Obamacare. Similar discussion could be found on numerous right-wing websites. Will any of those sites revise their comments now that their foundation in the Daily Mail piece has been exposed as fact-free? I'm not holding my breath.

At this point, I hope the independent investigation is thorough and that it makes serious recommendations for addressing all of these concerns. A tough review with real suggestions for training and reform might well save the LCP, and the LCP is well worth saving. The protocol has won plaudits in palliative care journals, was well reviewed in the Royal College of Physicians original National Care of the Dying audit, has garnered the support of palliative care nurses, and undoubtedly eases the deaths of many tens of thousands annually. But there seems also to be little doubt that it has sometimes been carelessly implemented, or implemented with insufficient discussion and explanation.

One suggestion--indeed, a plea--for anyone who wants to comment on the issue, though: Read the actual pathway. That will have the salutary effect of enabling you to distinguish problems that result from following it from those that result from not following it.

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