Why states without a “POLST” are functioning as defacto “death panels” by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

Tuesday, 19 Nov 2013 06:20

About Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy (120 Posts)

Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy is a Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician, who practices in one of the largest emergency departments in the United States at Huntsville Hospital. Through her writing and speaking, she is devoted to transforming the end of life into a time of peace, closure and healing. Media Page


I sat in silence wrestling with myself, shifting in my seat, as my husband drove down the road. He pointed out some beautiful fall foliage. I looked at the trees but could not appreciate the scenery due to my turmoil. All I could think about was how uncomfortable I was with my father’s hospital discharge plan and how fractured end of life healthcare planning is in some states (specifically, states without a POLST form), states such as mine, Alabama. Since becoming active in advocating for better end of life healthcare planning, I have been a supporter of the POLST for lots of obvious reasons- but most basically, it ensures that the medical system obeys the wishes of the patient or the acting healthcare proxy. I have known abstractly how important such a document is for my patients. But now, a new personal knowledge is dawning for me—I now know firsthand how the LACK of a POLST or POLST-like document actually LIMITS healthcare options for those who are near the end of life!

Here is our family story:

My father has late stage COPD. You know, the kind where you are tethered to an oxygen machine and have limited physical activity. Nevertheless, he still enjoys a moderate quality of life- he can drive where ever he would like and on warm days, he hangs out with his guy friends at a designated outdoor site, if he feels up to it. Not bad in my opinion.

He was just recently admitted to the hospital for a severe COPD exacerbation (common in the end stages of the disease). He and his primary doctor have discussed advanced directives and his wishes on various occasions and as his disease progresses, things have changed. This time, he told his doctor that “he would accept a mask (oxygen, CPAP or BiPAP- all non-invasive forms of respiratory support) but would not want a tube (to be intubated on a ventilator- an invasive form of support).” As one of his designated healthcare proxies, my job is to support this wish, to make sure he gets what he wants and doesn’t get what he doesn’t want- to assure that he gets CPAP or BiPAP but not full intubation. I was very comfortable with this while he was still in the hospital because the paperwork in the hospital setting makes all of these options clear. It was when he got ready to be discharged that I about had a cow….because our “out of hospital” official state paperwork doesn’t offer the option he wants should he need it (CPAP or BiPAP, which I will also refer to as the “middle option” in respiratory care). I scrambled around and asked a few high ranking EMS Medical Directors in the state whether CPAP/BiPAP was routinely offered to patients who had signed pre-hospital Do Not Attempt Resuscitation orders and the answer appears to be “No.” Essentially, this meant that if my father took home DNR orders and got into respiratory distress and failure, that paramedics would not be likely to offer him the respiratory treatment that he had requested, but which was clearly understood to be part of his hospital therapy! (The exception would be if the paramedics knew to call medical control to ask for orders for a BiPAP- but if you are not medical personel, how are you going to know how to ask for this? Further, if you hand write this on the DNR document, it may be ignored because EMS are trained to be suspicious of “tampered” official documents and may ignore it all together.)

So there I was sitting in the passenger seat as we were driving to the hospital the day before my father was to be discharged. I was holding the Alabama state Do Not Attempt Resuscitation order in my hand. It was rolled up, with fraying edges and was moist from my sweating palms. The papers were a wreck and so was I, as I literally wrestled with the document, trying to make it something it wasn’t. I was trying to make it a POLST, which would clearly give my father the option he wanted – an option which would be clearly understood and obeyed by EMS. But since this middle option is not clearly offered in the Alabama State prehospital paperwork, I had to ask myself: So which would be worse? My father not getting BiPAP when he needed it to save his life OR getting intubated when he didn’t want it?

I was angry that I even had to ask such a question when a middle ground option existed, one that his doctor and the hospital was willing to offer him but one which is not explicitly offered in the prehospital setting despite the fact that paramedics drive around with this equipment in their trucks!!!

I knew that if Dad’s doctors signed the Alabama prehospital DNR order which states “withhold resuscitative measures… (including) endotracheal intubation and other advanced airway management” that the likelihood that he would receive appropriate “middle ground” respiratory therapy would be almost nil—meaning that he could die (prematurely) because the treatment that he desires would be withheld.  In frustration, I threw the papers to my feet.

I thought, “Damn it, I’m a doctor and I can’t even assure the care for my father that he has requested! If I am having trouble, what about “Joe Blow” and everyone else out there who are trying to make the best end of life choices for themselves or someone they love?”


My father and I are living in a state where present end of life healthcare paperwork is archaic and lagging behind by not listing available “middle ground” medical technologies such as CPAP or BiPAP. This omission effectively withholds medical care options from patients and their families.

I am living in a state without a POLST document and I am living in a state of frustration- not only for my father, but for all of my patients, and for anyone who is trying to sort out their final medical care wishes.

In our state, the prehospital EMS End of Life healthcare choice document is a legislated document. The last time I heard about government legislation limiting potentially life-sustaining medical care, we called them “death panels.”

Alabama, we’ve got to do better. Don’t wait until it’s your own father to do the right thing. See Let’s get this done!

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14 thoughts on “Why states without a “POLST” are functioning as defacto “death panels” by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

      State approved DNRs or POLST documents are not ignored by EMS providers, but they are really tied explicitly to the language of the document. When the document is clear among various options like the POLST is, the air is clearest so to speak. One thing that most people do not know is that in most states EMS providers are not free to interpret living wills in the context of what type of care may be given before arrival to hospital.

  1. Rea

    Yes, this is powerful. Yes, it’s frustrating in the extreme! Can also be outright harmful to patients. Change needed! UPDATE, AL and other states as well. Bring us into the 2nd decade of the 21st century! Give people choices, and put some legal teeth and strick instruction into the decisions made. We know so much. We do so little – sometimes. Now for action. With many sane voices, it can be done. Speak. Write. Change.

  2. Heidi Jaeger Smith

    You bring up such a valid point about the lack of information being tantamount to a death panel. Honoring the wishes of the dying should be the goal of a compassionate healthcare system. As part of the IC3 Beacon program, we developed an online web based registry for POLST forms over the last three years. It is in production with a small group of pioneers in end of life care and our local EMT departments. To get to this level took legislative action and a will to improve the system by the healthcare community of Utah. My hope is that these efforts will be seen as a path for other states in the near future. Your frustration with the current system was certainly shared by all of us. This was our solution. Our project is being presented today at the American Medical Informatics Association in Washington, DC. For more information, please see our website: and also our video on ePOLST which was created as part of this project.

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author


      Thanks so much for sharing your project! This sounds fantastic and I plan on sharing it with those interested in moving forward in our state.

      Thanks again for taking time to share this info

  3. Jeannie Wolfsen

    Thank you for sharing this. I have recently become aware of POLST and am so very grateful for the direction it gives. As a nurse it has always been point of distress when it came time to discuss end of life options and with POLST it provides a pathway that can be updated as the disease progresses. What an incredible break through for end of life care.

    Good Luck getting Alabama on board. Do you have a game plan for bringing it to the attention of your state leaders?

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author


      We are gathering supporters among the healthcare professions then will move forward with asking to open this to legislation. There is some fear here in AL that ANY conversation regarding end of life and legislation my stir up the “death panel” debate- but I attempt to turn that argument on its head with this article.

  4. Scott

    Another great article, Monica! Of course you know, that’s why we included open-ended text boxes in our service. We want users to be able to get as granular as they feel is necessary when expressing their treatment wishes! What you may not know, however, is that MyDirectives also lets users upload and store their MOLST, POLST or other portable treatment orders, if appropriate, for free. And since users’ advance care plans, advance directives and portable treatment orders are all securely stored “in the cloud,” they’re available 24/7! As always, thanks for your support!

    1. Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy Post author

      Scott! Thanks for the details. MyDirectives is a fantastic online AD and I am glad to know that it is designed to articulate with the POLST! I have my own AD online with MyDirectives and recommend readers to take a look.

      1. Rea

        Where you go with your own AD, others should take note and follow. You are so intensely involved in the movement to be prepared and have a plan. You would know. “Take a look” is important advice. I, for one, am doing exactly that.

  5. Pingback: Why states without a “POLST” are functioning as defacto “death panels” by Monica Williams-Murphy, MD | It’s OK to Die | All Things Palliative - Article Feed

  6. Pashta MaryMoon

    I live in B.C. Canada, where we don’t have POLST but legal Advance Directives. Mostly I wanted to comment that I understand how difficult it can be for paramedics to be sure that they have an authentic DNR order — or in fact, one at all, since it may not be readily accessible. Therefore, in order to have my DNR honoured, I have a copy on it on the frig door (where we have been told that paramedics will look, if called to your home), and a wallet card in my purse. However, perhaps even more useful, I had DNR tattooed on my right wrist, and ‘no CPR’ tattooed on my left chest. I have been assured that paramedics would notice the tattoos immediately and recognized what they mean. Obviously, tattooing is not for everyone (probably most people), but I can’t imagine a more authentic and ‘certain’ way to let the paramedics know what my wishes are.

  7. Merle Miller

    I practiced Em Med for 20 yrs and then decided to get a second Board Certification and now practice Palliative Care. I have practiced in Colorado and am now in California. The POLST, or as I prefer the MOST (Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment) is a powerful tool. I am sorry AL doesn’t recognize it. Consider a DNR “necklace” with the details of care desired. Or a “doctor’s order” sheet on the refrigerator…
    Thanks for your column!


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