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Physicians advocate for “more educated and deliberative decision making” about dialysis

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More than 20 million Americans, one in 10 adults, have some form of chronic kidney disease. For those suffering from chronic kidney disease or end-stage renal disease, dialysis is a commonly recommended treatment. But a story published today in the New York Times reports that for older patients the treatment is increasingly being seen as an choice, not an imperative, and "a growing number of nephrologists and researchers are pushing for more educated and deliberative decision making when seniors contemplate dialysis."

Paula Span writes:

Unquestionably, dialysis has helped save lives. The mortality rate for patients with chronic kidney disease decreased 42 percent from 1995 to 2012, according to the most recent report from the United States Renal Data System.

The picture for older patients, in particular, is less rosy. About 40 percent of patients over age 75 with end-stage renal disease, or advanced kidney failure, die within a year, and only 19 percent survive beyond four years, the renal data system has reported.

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In a Canadian survey, 61 percent of patients said they regretted starting dialysis, a decision they attributed to physicians’ and families’ wishes more than their own. In an Australian study, 105 patients approaching end-stage kidney disease said they would willingly forgo seven months of life expectancy to reduce their number of dialysis visits. They would swap 15 months for greater freedom to travel.

In real-world hospitals and nephrologists’ offices, of course, patients aren’t offered such trade-offs. “People drift into these decisions because they’re presented as the only recourse,” said Dr. V. J. Periyakoil, a geriatrician and palliative care physician at Stanford University School of Medicine.

The moving video above, which was produced by Periyakoil, tells the story of one older man's decision to stop dialysis after 12 years. ("It takes a lot out of you - it's a long drawn-process," Christopher Whitney explained in the piece. "If I would get a kidney now, it would be a waste... I'm not the person I used to be.") About the difficult decision-making process that faces patients like Whitney, Periyakoil said in an email this morning:

Persons with kidney failure often struggle with making decisions related to dialysis. These decisions impact not only the patient but also their family members. For some, these decisions have ethical and moral implications as well. You may have questions like “Should I start dialysis right away or can I wait? Is it okay to refuse dialysis? I have been on dialysis and feel tired all the time and have poor quality of life - is it okay to stop dialysis? If I stop dialysis how long will live?”

Periyakoil urges patients to "think about what your life goals are as well as what matters most to you at life’s end. Be sure to discuss these important issues with your doctor so you can make your wishes known and make decisions that are right for you and your family."

Previously: How best to treat dialysis patients with heart disease, Keeping kidney failure patients out of the hospital, Study shows higher Medicaid coverage leads to lower kidney failure rates and Benefits of dialysis for frail elderly debated

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