In his new book, Dr. Byock shares his refined, crisp, socially and politically attractive call to action for people of our country to join in a thoughtful dialogue about how we all care for each through the end of life. The Best Care Possible follows The Four Things That Matter Most and Dying Well as a foundational contribution to Palliative Care and the American culture. Ira reframes the principles of palliative care in four simple words, The Best Care Possible. I spoke with my mentor about his new book.
Cory: I know you have been touring with your book, doing radio, television and press interviews. What is the dialogue you are hoping to incite?
Ira: The book is not the thing. I wrote the book to provoke discussion in the professional and general public about how we care for each other through the end of life. It is not from ill intention that people are dying badly, but rather because our culture doesn’t have a good sense of what good care is. Culturally we have to grow the rest of the way up. I want to feed the cultural imagination about what is possible through the end of life.
Cory:I want to ask a question that you likely haven’t been asked. As you taught me to state the obvious with patients and families, such as, “I want to make sure you receive the best care possible.” I can see your new book as a reframing of the principles of palliative care in four simple words, The Best Care Possible. I am interested to know how you would call the Academy to action to influence the national dialogue?
Ira: To the Academy’s members, I have to say that time is up. We have been talking for years about what needs to happen. We have been worried about what happens when the baby boomers approach the end of life. Now they have started to show up in the obituaries; 78 million of us. In medicine we have also created chronic illness with many people living with multiple serious illnesses.
I want the field to at least struggle with what is unfolding. Despite all the progress in hospice and palliative care, we are not ready. Look at all the technological advances in medicine, including the creation of the chronically critically ill patients….we are not ready. We have to rise to an unprecedented challenge to preserve western civilizations’ values of caring for each other and preserving the inherent dignity of each and every person as they approach the end of life.
The Academy has a leadership role in helping the culture grow the rest of the way up. There has to be a social and cultural transformation. We have to reframe illness and dying and the care throughout the end of life and reclaim caregiving through the end of life as a profoundly personal and only partially medical experience.
The Academy has to affirm the founding principles of the specialty. Physician-assisted suicide is one case in point. We can’t be neutral about the discipline’s stance. Physician assisted suicide and euthanasia are not the role of palliative care specialists. If you just think about it; we palliative care specialists are all pro-life. Preserving life is at the foundation of western civilization. That is why we have fire departments and police, to serve and protect. We have sanitation and clean water; these are pro-life parts of our society. To somehow allow a political movement to take that language from us and give it to those activists is far more power than they deserve. The Academy needs to start with affirming the principles of the discipline, the inherent dignity of people, the fact that we are pro-life, and that physician-assisted suicide is not part of medical practice.
The cultural transformation has to include being honest about preserving life and being honest about medical possibilities towards the end of life. As a culture we must recognize that we are mortal.
Branding what we do as providing “the best care possible” is consistent with enhancing quality of life, but has “social marketing” advantages. The boomers have always wanted the best. It is a simple message that works really well.
Cory: How is the Academy adopting this?
Ira: It is good language and messaging. In meeting new patients, I often say, “I want to give you the best care possible” as a way of framing the clinical relationship. The term is a vessel in which to pour individualized meaning. But the term is also effective in a social marketing. Giving and receiving “the best care” is meaningful individually and to the macro society. At all levels, palliative care is a way of delivering that goal.
After my conversation with Ira, I am doubly convinced that the best care possible isn’t a slogan or a sound bite. It is authentic. It cuts to the core of palliative care as we match medical possibilities to patient’s preferences and goals while managing symptoms, coordinating care with other medical providers, improving quality of life, providing a space for healing fractured relationships, fostering human development, honoring spiritual traditions and values, and baring witness to the bare and tender emotions of serious illness. Palliative care is the specialty that overflows the vessel of The Best Care Possible through the end of life. I thank Ira for his wisdom, vision and mentorship.
Cory Ingram, M.D.
Assistant Professor of Family and Palliative Medicine
Mayo Clinic, College of Medicine
Medical Director of Palliative Care
Chair of the Palliative Medicine Specialty Council
Mayo Clinic Health System