I think therefore I am? – When in Rome

Photo by Zheka Boychenko on Unsplash

People come from many different places each with its own culture. This includes medical cultures and different ways of dealing with end-of-life care situations. I have talked to visiting New Zealand-trained registrars who had visited relatives overseas. One registrar talked about how upset he had been when he visited his grandmother who lived in a residential care facility in Asia. He knew she had end-stage dementia but was shocked by the number of invasive treatments she received as standard care. His grandmother had refused food and drink which is common in end-stage dementia. In the New Zealand setting, this would lead to a conversation in which the family would be prepared for the impending death of their loved one. The patient would be kept comfortable and nature would take its course. Not so for the registrar’s grandmother who had not been able to consent to any treatments for several years. With the approval of the next of kin, a feeding tube was inserted through her abdominal wall into her stomach. This allowed for liquid meal replacements to be pumped directly into her stomach.

This kept her alive and maintained her quantity of life, but this did not improve her quality of life. She remained unable to talk and could not recognise family members. After the registrar visited his grandmother he was upset and tried to convince his relatives to change the grandmother’s management plan, to allow for her to die naturally. He failed to shift his local family’s thinking, as the grandmother was receiving the standard treatment. The local medical culture was one of preserving the quantity of life at all costs, with no adjustment made for quality of life. The registrar was troubled by the medical culture clash.

Patients and their families may experience a medical culture clash when dealing with our local health system. They may find it hard to accept that there are no further treatments available. Helpful friends and family may make things more difficult with their unsolicited advice. “Back home this would never happen. The patient would be on intravenous fluids, and artificial nutrition, and would be having a lot of investigations.” This can make a stressful situation more so. People try to help but the way they do things may increase stress and suffering. Each case needs to be dealt with individually and with respectability.

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