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Death Denying Culture Unfortunate Result Of Medical Innovation

BY DANIEL GAITAN | daniel@lifemattersmedia.org

Advances in medical therapies and technological innovation have led to a “death denying” culture pervading American health care, said Dr. Susie White, an emergency medicine physician at Provena St. Joseph Hospital, during a bioethics symposium at the University of Illinois-Chicago on National Health Care Decisions Day.

National Health Care Decisions Day aims to inspire and educate the public and medical providers about the importance of advance care planning.

“Many older patients find themselves in a position they never thought they would find themselves in,” White said. “We have gained 30 years in our life expectancy.” Prior to antibiotics and modern therapies, most people died quickly- from infections, malnutrition or fevers.

Now, only 10 percent of Americans die sudden, unexpected deaths, and the sick and dying receive care in hospitals.

These shifts have fueled a “death denying” culture, one in which many wish to suppress or avoid any sign of aging or illness, White said. Families may grow angry at doctors- or even the patient- when treatments fail.

White maintains that palliative care can help patients and their families, and that the relatively recent medical specialty has the potential to reverse this culture of denial. “What we want to do is form a team of doctors, nurses, chaplains, anyone who might be helpful in an individual’s case and help anyone who has a life- limiting disease,” she said. “We want everyone in the family on the same page and smooth transitions.”

Most patients should not begin palliative care during the process of active dying, but rather, much earlier- even at the onset of illness, White said. “Palliative care is not hospice, but is an extra layer of support, that can go along with aggressive treatments,” she said.

The Integritas Institute for Ethics, a program of the John Paul II Newman Center, arranged the symposium, which explored the ethical challenges that arise at the end of life.