From the opposite end of the spectrum from the “forced exit” category, the medical equivalent of the famous comment, “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it:”

““Sometimes you block the near exits, and all you’ve got left is a far exit, which is not a dignified and comfortable death,” Albert Mulley, a physician and the director of the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science, told me recently. As we talked, it emerged that he, too, had had to fend off the medical system when his father died at age 93. “Even though I spent my whole career doing this,” he said, “when I was trying to assure as good a death as I could for my dad, I found it wasn’t easy.”

If it is this hard for doctors to navigate their parents’ final days, imagine what many ordinary patients and their families face. “It’s almost impossible for patients really to be in charge,” says Joanne Lynn, a physician and the director of the nonprofit Altarum Center for Elder Care and Advanced Illness in Washington, D.C. “We enforce a kind of learned helplessness, especially in hospitals.” I asked her how much unwanted treatment gets administered. She couldn’t come up with a figure—no one can—but she said, “It’s huge, however you measure it. Especially when people get very, very sick.”

Unwanted treatment is a particularly confounding problem because it is not a product of malevolence but a by-product of two strengths of American medical culture: the system’s determination to save lives, and its technological virtuosity. Change will need to be consonant with that culture. “You have to be comfortable working at the margins of the power structure within medicine, and particularly within academic medicine,” Mulley told me. You need a disrupter, but one who can speak the language of medicine and meet the system on its own terms.”

Sometimes you block the near exits, and all you’ve got left is a far exit, which is not a dignified and comfortable death,”

Read it all: How Not to Die

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