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I, Death Panel

February 11, 2013

off switchMy 79 year old father is in intensive care at a hospital in Florida. He’s on a ventilator, has a perforated colon and infection, plus advancing pneumonia. I’ve been speaking with 3 doctors and a multitude of nurses regarding his care. As his health care proxy, I have decisions to make, and have information that should make my decisions cleat cut:

Dad wants to die.

He’s verbalized this wish to everyone he’s been able to speak with in the past few months, and he’s passively desired this fate since his wife passed in 2007. I know this, and I want to respect his wish, but when it comes to making a decision that will result in ending a human life, emotions cloud judgment. Given Dad’s medical and psychological realities, this decision should be transactional, but for this imperfect blogger, it isn’t.

Enter Watson. I read in Forbes that IBM’s supercomputer is now pursuing a career in medicine… and insurance. It was a bit chilling to read, “health care providers will now be able to tap Watson’s expertise in deciding how to treat patients.” The article states Watson provides 90% accuracy for lung cancer treatment decisions. Humans are only half right.

The implications of this technology are multi-dimensional and massive. The insurance angle is in “utilization management.” That’s the process where insurers decide what treatments they’ll authorize and pay for. The emotion-free data Watson provides will now be used for life and death decisions.

My dad was born in 1933. My generation didn’t start booming until 1946, and continued through 1964. In 2011, the near 80 million baby boomers began turning 65 and entering the Medicare system. The potential costs of this generational transition are staggering, and tough decisions are going to have to be made regarding “utilization management” for these tens of millions entering Medicare. With the emotional difficulty of making these decisions, and the costs seeming beyond our national means, might a cold, calculating machine make the excruciating decisions for us? “Watson” sounds much nicer than “death panel,” doesn’t it?

I’ll head South tomorrow hoping to find the courage to do the right thing. Watson wouldn’t need courage. The data is clear.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bruce Davidson permalink
    February 11, 2013 4:51 pm

    I dont envy you this time. We had no such choice with my dad. Liver cancer too far gone. 6 weeks from diagnosis to departure. All with grace and open heart, I wish you strength.

  2. Kathleen Maloney permalink
    February 11, 2013 9:33 pm

    Great post and some compelling information to be either interested in or very afraid of! So sorry for this tough time.

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