Making Time for 'The Conversation'

December 18, 2015

Kansas City, Kan. — A health crisis can happen at any time, at any age. When the unthinkable strikes – serious illness or devastating accident – families who haven't discussed medical treatment preferences are often left agonizing: What does their loved one want?

To help reduce this indecision, The University of Kansas Hospital is participating in a national initiative known as The Conversation Project. Its purpose: Help patients and families think about what matters most to them when faced with a medical crisis or serious illness, and then ensure a patient's treatment plan reflects those preferences.

It all starts with a conversation. What if you cannot speak? What are your medical wishes? According to The Conversation Project National Survey, 90 percent of people say talking with their loved ones about end-of-life care is important, but only 27 percent have actually done so.

Karin Porter-Williamson, MD, the hospital's Palliative Medicine director, is spearheading a team of physicians, nurses and other caregivers who are promoting such conversations among patients and families. 

"It's really important for them to spend time on good advance-care planning so they understand each other's thoughts, values and wishes," she said.

Even if they are relatively healthy, patients are advised to complete a power of attorney for healthcare or create an advance directive. The legal documents describe who will speak for them if they are unable, and they allow patients to spell out their medical wishes.

The hospital is also participating in the Transportable Physician Orders for Patient Preferences initiative. It includes a form for caregivers to translate the patient's goals and preferences into physician's orders, which move with the patient across the continuum of care.

As Porter-Williamson points out, an important motivation behind an advance directive isn't because you have an illness – it's because you have a family. "When we realize how important this is in our own lives," she said, "it helps us understand how important this is for our patients and families."

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