In Depth

‘Newshour’ Looks at ‘the End’

Terminal Cancer Patients Find Doctors Reluctant to Discuss Issue

Perhaps the most controversial award-winning health report honored by the Association of Health Care Journalists in 2009 is “Talking About the End,” produced by PBS’ “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” which took third place in the television category.

In “Talking About the End,” “NewsHour” health unit correspondent Betty Ann Bowser told the story of a woman with lung cancer who is facing the end of her life, exploring an aspect of treatment that is often overlooked: talking about the end.

A recent study funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Mental Health found that only 37% of patients with advanced cancer reported having end-of-life discussions with their oncologists. Ms. Bowser’s report poignantly espoused that there are physical, emotional and financial benefits for patients when their physicians broach this difficult subject.

“We found that for palliative-care doctors, this is a topic about which they were extremely eager to speak, because it is a misunderstood area of medicine often overlooked and confused with hospice care,” said “NewsHour” producer Bridget Desimone. “We worked with a number of them at major medical centers to find patients who were willing to share their experiences and thoughts about how they wanted to live the end of their lives. Dr. Diane Meier helped us find the wonderful Judy Freedman.”

Ms. Freedman, the lung cancer patient, had been told that she might only live a year. She chose the way she wanted to spend the time she had left, and asked her doctors about not just treatment options, but quality-of-life issues.

For “NewsHour,” Ms. Freedman opened up. “Judy told us that she found it cathartic to share her story and that she hoped it would help others like her. For the oncologists, we found that they struggled with this issue,” Ms. Desimone said.

AHCJ judges were impressed with both the reporting and the patient. “The health unit at the ‘NewsHour’ profiled an extraordinary patient who recognized her own doctor was uncomfortable with the topic, then found another doctor to help identify her wishes,” wrote the judges in the commentary. “The conversation helped not just her, but her husband and daughter, to cope better. The story went on to examine more broadly the physical, emotional and financial benefits to having end-of-life discussions.”

According to Ms. Desimone, this was a story the health unit had not dealt with before. “We were surprised to learn how difficult it is for these end-stage cancer patients to find doctors with whom they can have the end-of-life discussion,” she said. “They want to know what to expect, what options are available to make their final days more comfortable and meaningful.
Oncologists feel helpless when there is little left they can do to help the patient survive.”

In addition to being recognized by AHCJ, which has thrilled the “NewsHour” principals, the story has drawn a significant response from viewers.

“We’ve had many viewers thank us for having a dialogue about this difficult topic. We heard from people who had lost loved ones themselves and had trouble dealing with this,” Ms. Desimone said.