If you’ve ever helped as a caregiver to someone in the twilight years of their life, or perhaps you yourself are at this stage, you may have noticed when it was medication time that there were a lot of pills. It is true there are exceptions to this rule, those individuals who only take one or two medications a day. However this is the exception, and there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. Either you are on pages worth of medication, or hardly any as you begin to enter the last stages of life.
The first question is, how does this happen? A large culprit to this phenomenon stems from the expectations for the doctor/patient encounter. When a patient comes to see a provider with a specific complaint, they expect a remedy. The unspoken words from every patient are “fix me”. While most complaints aren’t easy to alleviate quickly, culture demands instant relief. Thus, handing out a new medication for a complaint certainly feels like the problem has been addressed.
This is not much different to what happens when my 3-year-old skins his knee. He has been enculturated to believe that with any scrape a Band-Aid is the ultimate solution. As a parent, I can tell that most of his injuries medically don’t need Band-Aids, and yet when I relent I’m amazed at the immediate soothing effect it has because something has been done to “fix” him.
Medications at times are like Band-Aids, they may not be essentially needed, but we expect something from them, and so in turn, they pacify us.
The next issue with medications is the tendency that once started they are never stopped. Someone comes into the hospital for knee surgery and complains of indigestion due to anxiety about the surgery, so an antacid is prescribed. The person is discharged with the new medication, and years later are still taking it, despite not medically needing it.
When I put a Band-Aid on my 3-year-old, it takes some convincing after a day that I can remove it, because he is now healed. How funny it would be if we left Band-Aids on indefinitely, never evaluating if the injury healed. Yet this is often the case for pills, started by other specialists, or for specific reasons in the past, we trust their benefit, like the Band-Aid, without pondering if still needed.
When it comes to end of life, the harm of over-prescribing and not eliminating medications is something called “pill burden.” Patients fatigued from their disease and having more difficulty swallowing become burdened by the handful of medications we expect them to take. Many pills can be eliminated because of the above scenarios, but even more can be stopped when we evaluate why someone is taking the pill in the first place.
Many medications prescribed are preventative, meant to stave off unwanted future risks. Some of these drug classes are blood thinners, cholesterol lowering agents, blood pressure medications, dementia medications, and all vitamins. These agents are meant to prevent things years in the future, so it makes no sense continuing them on hospice when time is limited.
Pill burden doesn’t just occur at the end of life. It’s okay to be an advocate and sit down with your physician to discuss the necessity of medications prescribed. The key is to ensure the pills you take are working for you, because it can be work to take them in the first place.
Dr. Amy Clarkson is the medical director for South Wind Hospice.