Family caregivers sometimes mistakenly think “do not hospitalize” means “do not treat.” But that’s not the case. A DNH order can stipulate that under specific circumstances, like if you are bleeding or in extreme pain, you do, in fact, want to be treated at a hospital.
Advance medical directives have been publicly encouraged for a long time, yet only 38 percent of Americans have them, according to a recent study. Perhaps it’s because death and dying are topics that make us uncomfortable. Or perhaps it’s just that directives don’t always work.
Doctors are not legally bound to follow your advance directive. The law gives them and others legal immunity if they follow your wishes ― but they are not obligated to do so. In fact, doctors can refuse to comply with your wishes if they have an objection of conscience or consider your wishes medically inappropriate. If that’s the case, they have an obligation to transfer you to another health care provider who will comply, according to the American Bar Association. But this is hardly a guarantee that your directive will ultimately be carried out.
A bigger problem may come from the ambulance crew. Advance medical directives are pretty ineffective once someone dials 911. The job of a first responder is to attempt to resuscitate the patient and transport them to a hospital. If you don’t want that to happen, why call?
Overall, DNH orders aren’t being widely used. In 2007, a Harvard Medical School researcher examined a national database of more than 91,000 nursing home residents with late-stage dementia, and found that just 7.1 percent had DNH directives.
But not everyone thinks that’s a bad thing. Dr. Rebecca Sudore, a geriatrician and medical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, said that while “DNH may be good for decreased costs, it is not always the best thing for the patient.”
“Although DNH may be appropriate for some patients, I am concerned about what widespread DNH orders may mean on a population level,” Sudore told HuffPost in an email. “It may be appropriate for some, and not appropriate for many other people. I think that other outcomes such as controlled symptoms, relief of suffering, quality of life, satisfaction, caregiver stress etc. are as important, if not more important, than hospitalization.”
She noted that the “the goal should be to honor patients’ wishes and to provide care that alleviates suffering.”
“For some people, staying out of the hospital may accomplish their goals if they have access to good quality symptom control and care,” she said. “For other people who are suffering from symptoms that cannot be controlled at home or in a nursing home, then being in the hospital may be the best way to honor their wishes and prevent suffering.” And those wishes should be optional, she said, and subject to change.