My Patients Are Dying… And I’ve Never Been Prouder

By  |  November 27, 2008 | 

I’m on clinical service now and my patients are dying left and right. And I’ve never been prouder of my own care, and that delivered by my colleagues and hospital.

When I was in training, a patient’s death was invariably considered a medical failure, and thus an occasion for shame and silence – the Outcome-That-Must-Not-Be-Named. We treated it sterilely, coldly; we might dissect a death case in an M&M conference (“Why didn’t you start heparin at this point?”), but I can’t remember ever seeing an attending role model an end-of-life discussion with a patient or family, talk about palliative care on rounds, or work with a multidisciplinary team to ensure that a patient’s last days or weeks were pain free and dignified. The dying patient was the Elephant In Our Room, but we stayed huddled in the other corner, where medicine was clinical, safe, and emotionless.

A profound change in this sad state of affairs has been gaining momentum over a generation. The hospice movement began in England in the 1960s under the tutelage of Dame Cicely Saunders, and ultimately was embraced in the US, spurred on by Kubler-Ross’s landmark book, On Death and Dying. The first mention of palliative care in the English language medical literature came in 1956, with hospice first described 7 years later. But these movements remained far outside the American mainstream well into the 1980s.

In the hospital, recognition of the absurdity of the Full Court Press in patients with poor prognoses led to a major focus on Do Not Resuscitate orders in the 1980s. This was my first research interest – as a UCSF resident in the mid-80s, I cared for scores of AIDS patients with pneumocystis pneumonia who died terrible deaths in the ICU. Working with my wonderful faculty mentors Bernie Lo, Phil Hopewell, and John Luce, I began investigating their mortality rates and how we could make better and more informed decisions regarding CPR and mechanical ventilation [for example, see here and here].

But in the hospital world, these twin trends – hospice on the one hand, and decision-making regarding CPR and mechanical ventilation on the other – remained strangely dissociated. The movement promoting compassionate care for dying patients was largely community-based and tended to focus on patients dying slow and painful deaths – mostly those with terminal cancer. Meanwhile, in the hospital we were exploring the senselessness of “doing everything” for (or, more to the point, to) patients with poor prognoses, troubled by seeing lives end so violently, stripped of all dignity. But we spent virtually no time thinking about how to bring hospice-like sensibilities and resources into the hospital. Frankly, as I think back, many of us saw that work as being a bit too touchy-feely for our tastes. We were doctors, after all, not social workers.

This was a profound failure of both imagination and conscience, and it led to the emergence of a thriving underground economy in death. In a 1998 study, Tom Prendergast and John Luce demonstrated that most of the patients who died in American ICUs had some portion of their care withdrawn or withheld. This was a shocking finding, particularly since few caregivers talked about this common practice openly, fearful of being sucked into the public broo-ha-ha surrounding euthanasia and Right to Life. But the silence came with a terrible price: nobody was ever taught how to do this well, and the medical literature simply airbrushed out the practice.

But the larger tragedy of our failure to embrace palliative care as a legitimate discipline was that by continuing to view death as a failure, we failed to gain the expertise and garner the resources to promote affirmative conversations with patients about alternatives to aggressive care. Sure, we might close the curtains, bump the morphine, and allow the patient whose care was near hopeless to pass peacefully, but we virtually never spoke openly with patients or families about how a focus on comfort might be a better way to complete one’s life.

This has been the magic of the palliative care movement. By naming and legitimizing the field, defining its competencies, promoting research, and training experts, we have made clear that this part of medicine is a crucial part of being a great doctor. (I can’t go on without paying tribute to several foundations, particularly Robert Wood Johnson under the leadership of my colleague Steve Schroeder, and Soros, for seeing this need and supporting it with real money).

The results have been spectacular. Today, when a patient is admitted to UCSF Medical Center with a potentially terminal illness, we spend less time on a narrow and largely irrelevant discussion about “would you want us to shock you if your heart stops” than on a much broader dialogue about two different philosophies of care: doing everything to keep you alive longer, with all of its attendant burdens (not to mention costs, but that’ll be a subject for another day), versus focusing on keeping you, and your loved ones, as comfortable as possible during your final days. We have that discussion now because a) we’re all much more at ease with the concept; b) we are now relatively well schooled in how to conduct these conversations; and c) we can bring to bear resources and experts to help us out – both in having these discussions and in implementing the plan when patients and families choose comfort over cure.

Which brings me to our Palliative Care Service (PCS), which I’m proud to have live within my Division of Hospital Medicine at UCSF. (Parenthetically, since most American patients die in hospitals  – Oregon is the only state in which they don’t – the marriage of the fields of hospital medicine and palliative care is one literally made in heaven; that so many hospitalists are interested in palliative care, and visa versa, is a source of great strength for both fields.) Launched a decade ago by “the Two Steves” – Pantilat and McPhee – our Palliative Care Service has utterly transformed the way we practice medicine. In fact, I could no more imagine how a modern hospital could function without a robust palliative care service than I could without a strong cardiology service.

Whenever I call the PCS to help care for one of my patients – as I’ve done several times this month – I am always awed by my colleagues’ skill and compassion, and the practical help they, the PCS-trained nurses, and PCS social worker Jane Hawgood, bring to bear at times of great need. And every time they are involved in a case, my medical students and residents, and the ones rotating on the PCS (which – as one small measure of the transformation – has become one of the most popular electives at UCSF) broaden their definition of what it means to be a great doctor.

Back to my team this month – in the past two weeks, we’ve had 5 patients die out of about 25 admissions, a 20% mortality rate. And I couldn’t be prouder of the way we managed the patients’ care, our communication with the patients and their families, and the tears that we’ve all shed along the way. At one point or another in virtually every case, family members hugged me, members of my team, or members of the PCS and thanked us for our wonderful care – this at the most horrible time in their lives. It is uniquely sobering and gratifying.

We are entering a world in which case-mix adjusted mortality rates will be reported on the Web – and what other “quality” data could possibly resonate more deeply with the public? But I always recall the amusing story that arose from New York’s early experience with mortality reporting. About 15 years ago, goes the tale (probably part apocryphal), the state began publishing hospital mortality rates, and one local newspaper decided to republish the results. Of course, someone must be the worst – in this case, it was an upstate institution with a mortality rate near 75%! The paparazzi flocked like locusts to this small institution and set up their sea of boom microphones and klieg lights on its front lawn. Shoulders slumped, the hapless director trudged out to the mikes to answer questions about these shocking data. “We’re a hospice,” he said simply.

Sure, in some cases a high mortality rate will be a marker of poor doctoring or dysfunctional systems. But sometimes it will demonstrate that a caregiver sat down with a patient and her family, honestly discussed the alternative ways of providing care, listened carefully to both facts and emotions, offered resources to orchestrate a “good death,” and shed a tear with the family when the terrible time came. We’d better be awfully careful about creating a set of incentives that stands in the way of that kind of medicine.

So on this Day of Thanksgiving, this is what I’m giving thanks for – to be practicing in an institution, in a specialty, and in an era in which this kind of care is recognized and celebrated for what it is: medicine at its finest.


Speaking of compassionate end-of-life care, I wanted to highlight the “Engage with Grace” project spearheaded by Paul Levy and Matthew Holt on their blogs (here and here), and being carried on a number of other healthcare blogs. It is a nice way to highlight some of the issues I’ve described above, and to encourage patients to talk about end-of-life care with their providers and loved ones. Please check it out.

I wish you and yours a happy and safe Thanksgiving.


  1. Annie November 28, 2008 at 4:03 pm - Reply

    The history that you provide about medicine is interesting. We seem to have such an overriding concern with using technology and with treating that we subvert the caring that is so essential.

    I’m glad you spoke to the team approach to providing end of life care. You didn’t mention Florence Wald, though. Are you familiar with her work?

    She recently died, and some of the obituaries were interesting in their own right. (link at my name to my take on the significance of her work)

    In light of the continued trends toward rewarding treatments with higher reimbursement rates while contracting and eliminating reimbursement for time spent in educating, counseling and comforting patients, how to you see end-of-life care’s context in the healthcare reform policy discussions?

  2. Christian Sinclair December 3, 2008 at 6:19 am - Reply

    Dr. Wachter,

    Thanks so much for this wonderful post highlighting the UCSF palliative care team.  I know they have been instrumental to so many palliative care teams around the US through the CAPC program, so their skills are going beyond just the walls of your hospital.  

    Your historical insight is much appreciated as well.  The historical split between palliative care and ICU’s is now just being overcome.  Many hospitals across the country are slowly making more collaborative inroads.

    I have highlighted some excerpts on Pallimed ( since your words will be much appreciated by many palliative care professionals.

    Annie, you are right to highlight Florence Wald as a foundation to the US hospice movement, but I think Dr. Wachter’s post was highlighting his personal experience in the evolution of this field inside the hospital, so that may be the reason he did not mention it.  I read your post on her obituaries and you have an insightful take on the oversight of her nursing background.

    Once again Dr. Wachter, Thank you.

  3. cbalexan December 3, 2008 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    Dr. Wachter,
    Thank you for your post. I am a graduate of UCSF’s IM residency program who has recently gone on to pursue further training in palliative care. I now practice in both hospital palliative care and hospice on the East coast.

    As a trainee who was “formed” by the UCSF medical environment, I second your praise for the wonderful clinicians of your PCS. I am thrilled to hear the service has been expanded to include not only physicians (as it was when I rotated there for an elective as a resident) but an interdisciplinary team. I can’t stress enough the positive impact the service made during my residency years on the wards. The wisdom, grace, and generous “presence” of such palliative care leaders and mentors as Drs. McPhee, Pantilat, and Chittenden supported me through the rigorous and often thankless training experience of being a resident physician.

    Reading your post took me back to those difficult – and rewarding – years at UCSF and the wonderful attendings who rounded out my training as a healer rather than simply a medical technician. I now realize just how fortunate i was back then to have trained at an institution with the palliative care resources UCSF had (and has!). Thanks for the walk down memory lane…and especially for giving this service the recognition it truly deserves!

  4. rita layson December 8, 2008 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    Dr. Wachter,
    I have been a Hospice physician since 1987. For many of those years I taught in an Internal Medicine residency in NC. I used to tell the residents that American medicine will be “mature” once doctors can say with pride that their patients die well. Thank you for so publicly stating such sentiments. Frankly, your comments brought tears to my eyes and a renewed faith that things can change for the better.

  5. blackwhitereadallover December 9, 2008 at 11:54 pm - Reply

    Bob, thank you. You know how I feel about this issue as a layperson, a sister and a human being. As a reporter, I often hear from readers that our local hospice is amazing, far more than one could rightfully expect from a town of 30,000 people. Better, they tell me, than most other such organizations.

    When my own brother died, I found all the rumors to be true. To think of someone else going on that journey without the same resources saddens me and I would hope that some degree of dedicated funding of nationwide hospices would be the next step in this movement.

  6. Annie December 14, 2008 at 6:24 pm - Reply

    The Dallas Morning News ran a lovely five part series on end-of-life care featuring the Baylor palliative care team.

  7. oregondoc December 14, 2009 at 4:48 pm - Reply

    Being a hospitalist in Oregon, I can say that we still have room for improvement. I think it will take much more education (especially with our subspecialists and surgeons) and a very active and accepted palliative care program in every hospital. It helps to have hospitalists who are involved in palliative care programs since they are often treating patients at the end of life–ie: the multiple hospitalizations that are seen in the last few months of life in many patients. I completely agree with Dr. Wachter’s comments. It is interesting that most of my colleagues comment that they had very little training in their academic centers on end of life care–most of this has been learned on the job.

    One of the problems is that as physicians, we are trained to look at one system and it may be easier to say “pancreatic cancer carries this prognosis” but what we are really seeing is the 75 year old with CKD stage 3, malnutrition, cardiomyopathy, DM with pancreatic cancer—how this all fits together is something that hospitalists need to recognize and understand.

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About the Author:

Robert M. Wachter, MD is Professor and Interim Chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where he holds the Lynne and Marc Benioff Endowed Chair in Hospital Medicine. He is also Chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine. He has published 250 articles and 6 books in the fields of quality, safety, and health policy. He coined the term hospitalist” in a 1996 New England Journal of Medicine article and is past-president of the Society of Hospital Medicine. He is generally considered the academic leader of the hospitalist movement, the fastest growing specialty in the history of modern medicine. He is also a national leader in the fields of patient safety and healthcare quality. He is editor of AHRQ WebM&M, a case-based patient safety journal on the Web, and AHRQ Patient Safety Network, the leading federal patient safety portal. Together, the sites receive nearly one million unique visits each year. He received one of the 2004 John M. Eisenberg Awards, the nation’s top honor in patient safety and quality. He has been selected as one of the 50 most influential physician-executives in the U.S. by Modern Healthcare magazine for the past eight years, the only academic physician to achieve this distinction; in 2015 he was #1 on the list. He is a former chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and has served on the healthcare advisory boards of several companies, including Google. His 2015 book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, was a New York Times science bestseller.


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