Life Matters Media
Start the most difficult conversation American isn’t having- the conversation about our end of life preferences

How POLST Forms Clarify Wishes

The Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) program, designed to improve end of life care in Illinois, is on its way to implementation. Health care professionals met at Rush University Medical Center this week to discuss the form’s development and strategies for raising public awareness.

Julie Goldstein, M.D., a clinical ethicist and palliative care physician at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center, provided the audience with hypothetical scenarios the POLST program form could remedy.

POLST program forms are more detailed than conventional living wills or other advance directives. They allow people to indicate preferences regarding resuscitation, intubation, intravenous antibiotics and feeding tubes. Such forms are intended for people who are likely in their last year of life.  They can follow patients across in-state care settings and direct doctors to provide or withhold life-sustaining treatment in emergency situations.

The forms aim to more quickly direct doctors to a person’s wishes and eliminate confusion about what patients would want in the case that they are medically incapacitated and unable to communicate their wishes.  The forms provide instructions in the case of a cardiopulmonary arrest (the person has no pulse and is not breathing), the degree of medical intervention they would want in a pre-arrest situation (the person has a pulse and/or is breathing), and whether or not they would want artificial nutrition if their medical illness prevented them from taking in adequate oral nutrition.

How a POLST form could help

A 67-year-old man is sent to the emergency room with chest pain and shortness of breath. He is also confused. The cardiologist says that a cardiac catheterization with angiogram and a stent are needed. The nurse tells the physician that there is a DNR order on his chart. Should the physician send the patient for an angiogram? It’s not clear. 

If that patient had a POLST form that indicates DNR in case of full cardiac arrest but an order for full treatment in a pre-arrest emergency, the physician would immediately know what to do. The patient would be sent for the angiogram.

An 85-year-old man is admitted to the emergency room with severe pneumonia. He’s hypoxic, confused and refusing the ventilator. There is a DNR order on the charts. The physician feels that DNR doesn’t apply to this potentially reversible condition but the nurses disagree. He receives full resuscitation. 

If that same patient had a POLST form indicating no CPR in the case of arrest and a preference for comfort care, the physician and nurses would have clear instructions.  He would not have undergone full resuscitation, but would have been maintained in comfort with noninvasive maneuvers.  .

A 59-year-old woman who is being treated for breast cancer is admitted to the emergency room for sepsis. She is transferred to intensive care and receives oxygen and maximum vasopressors. She has a DNR order on the charts. The staff are concerned that they are violating her wishes.

If she had a POLST form indicating no CPR in the case of arrest but limited interventions in addition to comfort measures, the staff may feel more comfortable treating her as they are doing and spend less time deliberating.

The Illinois POLST form will be available in early 2013, a version of the IDPH DNR Uniform Advance Directive. It will be most similar to the California POLST, although the final form awaits approval from state health officials.

POLST was developed in Oregon in the 1990s, and now 15 states have POLST programs. Twenty-eight states are considering the use of POLST forms.