“As patients near the end-of-life, an organization will want to make sure that they receive the appropriate treatments to be comfortable, maintain a good quality of life and have their preferences about dying honored. Is there any way a medical director can use data to monitor this across a whole population?”

Question from readers

The answer is definitively yes! Physician leaders can use data to identify patients nearing the end-of-life, ensure that their wishes are properly documented, and provide the care and comfort those patients need. An organization’s clinical and technical leaders can work together to implement this 4-step plan:

Step 1: Healthcare data algorithm identifies patients of concern

Claims data combined with EHR data provide a rich source of information to figure out via an algorithm which patients in an healthcare organization are more likely to die within the following 12 months. The breadth of claims data helps the organization see all of the services a patient is receiving in and out of network, while the depth of rich clinical data from the EHR provides a clear picture of the patient’s needs.

Data items especially useful in constructing the algorithm include age, recent hospitalizations, and significant co-morbidities such as heart failure, cancer or neurologic function. The Levine score, a well-known older claims-based method for predicting mortality, also uses the element of discharge to nursing home.

Critically, clinical and technical leaders must collaborate to build the right algorithm and data foundation for end-of-life care.

Step 2: Physicians review patient list

Algorithms can be extremely useful, but still require human review and insight. Once the algorithm has generated the list of potential patients, the names of these patients should be presented to their own primary care doctors with a simple question: “Would you be surprised if this patient died in the next 6-12 months?”

Step 3: Physicians discuss and document end-of-life wishes

If the physician answers that she would not be surprised if a patient were to die in the following 6–12 months, the next question for the doctor is, “Have you had a discussion about your patient’s end-of-life preferences, including issues of hospice and DNR status?”

If the answer is no, the doctor is encouraged to schedule the patient to have that important conversation, and document the answers in the correct field in the EHR. This is a critical workflow process point, as the organization needs to be able to harvest the plans for these very ill patients from a stable field, and not from random text in a progress note.

This conversation can be uncomfortable, so the clinical leader also needs to support providers with a training program — mostly for the PCPs, but also for relevant specialists such as oncologists and cardiologists who frequently work with patients near the end-of-life. This training program can be delivered via a 2-hour live meeting or via a mandatory webinar, and it should help educate doctors on the how to have a conversation about patient choices around the dying process and the basics of hospice care.

Step 4: Care management services assist with end-of-life challenges

The next step involves offering care management services to these ill patients as directed by the primary physician. Usually nurses with some extra training in end-of-life care can take on some of the care of these patients before they might transition to hospice.

A successful program like this requires organization leadership to make excellent end-of-life care a priority, and it depends on effective collaboration between clinical and IT leaders.

Presently in the United States, many patients are not offered the opportunity to declare their wishes for how the end of their life should proceed. Unfortunately, the default option under the law requires mandatory resuscitation regardless of the chances of survival. This often results in an undignified and inhumane death.

This sad scenario is part of the larger issue of older Americans often receiving unneeded care in the last months or year of life. We recently shared data with the New York Times for the article Skin Cancers Rise, Along with Questionable Treatments documenting the large number of potentially unnecessary dermatological procedures performed on older patients in the last year of life. The good news is with thoughtful medical leadership and powerful IT, many of these over-utilization problems near the end-of-life can be effectively circumvented. I have witnessed a successful, data-fueled end-of-life care program significantly increase the percent of patients dying with hospice and decrease the percent of patients dying in the hospital.

In summary, a motivated Medical Director can put together a team within the organization that will result in a greatly improved record of giving patients near the end-of-life choices and having the resources to honor those choices.