Why Don’t They Stop Chemo?

This post originated from the comment section of my blog entry “Letting the Doctor Off the Hook.” I got some offline comments and good discussion so I decided to retool my comment and post it as a blog entry. The question I started to ask after I finished my fellowship and started working in the real world is why do patients continue to get chemotherapy when it is clear that they are no longer benefiting from it or their time is very limited? One response is that it is solely financial, but I know some of these oncologists on a personal level and that is not the sole driving force. I would argue that the main reason is because the oncologists have a hard time with difficult discussions. The rest of the entry is from my comment.

“There are many patients that would benefit from hospice if referred sooner and many times I have questioned why oncologists either don’t refer to hospice at all or refer several days prior to death. There are 4 main reasons that I have observed (I’m sure there are more). 1) They have to have the difficult conversation and address that the current treatment is not working and discuss alternatives such as hospice. This is difficult for them since it is very uncomfortable as physicians to squash the “hope” of patients (as perceived by the oncologist ) and discuss “bad news.” 2) By admitting to number 1 and having the discussion, they are admitting to their “failure.” I’m not sure what they were thinking when they decided to be oncologists, but 100% of their patients will die at some point or another. They are literally experts in prolonging death (I’m not saying this sarcastically, many cancers will now be looked at as chronic illnesses as prognosis lengthens due to new chemo medications that will prolong life). I’ve seen oncologists want to continue with treatment even though the patient and family were adamant that they were done with treatment. I’ve seen the oncologist have a hard time letting go. 3) So we ask them to have to the “difficult discussion,” feel like a “failure” then on top of that they lose a customer. Financially this is definitely not an incentive to have a heart to heart with a patient. The truly great oncologists do not allow the financial aspect of their job to influence whether or not they will start, continue or stop treatment. They base their treatment options solely on what’s best for the patient. 4) They have a difficult time realizing that their patients are dying. Even though they are surrounded by dying patients in their practice and the hospital, they do not practice hospice nor is hospice and palliative care a part of their training. I have seen many patients in the hospital receive chemo while they were actively dying and I’ve counseled many nurses that felt guilty about giving chemo to these patients. To summarize, there are many reasons why people will continue to get chemo, but just like I hate being pigeon holed as the physician that wants to put everyone on hospice, I’d hate to pigeon hole every oncologist as non-caring and money hungry.”