A telemedicine ‘robot’ delivers end of life news to patient: is there an ethical problem here, Kaiser Permanente?

Bad, bad press for in-hospital telemedicine. A 78 year-old man is in the ICU in a Kaiser Permanente hospital in Fremont, California. He has end-stage chronic lung disease and is accompanied by his granddaughter. A nurse wheels in an InTouch Telemedicine ‘robot’ (brand is clearly visible on the videos; KP is one of their marquee customers). The mobile monitor screen is connected to a live doctor on audio/video for a virtual consult. The doctor is delivering terminal news: that not much can be done for Mr. Quintana other than to keep him comfortable in the hospital on a morphine drip, and that he would likely be unable to return home to hospice care.

Granddaughter Annalisia Wilharm videoed the consult. The screen is high above the bed, the doctor is wearing headphones, and is looking down. The doctor’s voice is accented and hard to understand through the speakers–is the volume low because it’s set low or due to privacy regulations? In any case, the doctor is asked time and again to repeat himself by the granddaughter as the patient cannot hear or understand the doctor. Another factor apparent on the video to this Editor is that the patient is on a ventilator–and ventilators make noise that mask other sounds.

Mr. Quintana passed away in the hospital last Tuesday 5 March, after a two-day stay.

The video has gone viral here in the US, with the family going to local press first (KTVU). The story was picked up in regional Northern California coverage and blew up into national coverage from USA Today (edited video complete with emotive background music), Fox News (San Jose Mercury News video), and picked up in media as diverse as the Gateway Pundit–if you want to get a feel for vox populi, see the comments.

Kaiser Permanente has apologized in guarded terms: “We offer our sincere condolences,” said Kaiser Permanente Senior Vice-President Michelle Gaskill-Hames. “We use video technology as an appropriate enhancement to the care team, and a way to bring additional consultative expertise to the bedside.” Also: “The use of the term ‘robot’ is inaccurate and inappropriate,” she exclaimed. “This secure video technology is a live conversation with a physician using tele-video technology, and always with a nurse or other physician in the room to explain the purpose and function of the technology. It does not, and did not, replace ongoing in-person evaluations and conversations with a patient and family members.” The family also was well aware of Mr. Quintana’s status but is equally upset at his treatment at this critical time.

Despite all this exclaiming, this Editor, an advocate of innovations in telemedicine and telehealth since 2006, finds fault with Kaiser Permanente’s deploying a telemedicine consult in this situation on the following grounds:

  • End-of-life news this serious needs to be delivered by a human. Period.
  • Despite Ms. Gaskill-Hames’s statement, the video consult was not intermediated by a human. There is someone in scrubs behind the InTouch mobile monitor, but there is no standing by the monitor nor any effort to interpret what the doctor is saying. Explaining the technology is not explaining what the patient and family can do.
  • The patient had difficulty understanding the doctor’s voice, either through hearing or language comprehension. A ventilator could be blocking or masking the audio. Even so, the audio, depending on the source, is muddy, and the video worse than you get on a smartphone. 
  • The monitor is at the foot of the bed, not close to the patient. The patient may not be able to see the monitor at that distance due to poor vision.
  • It doesn’t take much thought to believe there may be an issue of cultural inappropriateness.
  • There is no patient advocate or a chaplain present. Whether one visited later is not known.
  • Another open question: why was additional comfort care and a ventilator not available at home if Mr. Quintana was truly terminal? Did this man die needlessly in an ICU?

The popular takeaway about Kaiser, the VA, and other health systems which are deploying telemedicine by their patients is that robots are replacing doctors. We may know better, but that is what the consumer press runs with–an emotional video that, BTW, breaks patient-doctor confidentiality by showing the (unnamed, but not for long) doctor giving medical instructions to Mr. Quintana.

It is not the telemedicine technology, it is how it is being used. In this case, with insensitivity. The blame will be laid, in this shallow time, at the feet of the ‘robot’. Rightly, blame should also be laid at the feet of the increasingly ‘robotic’ practices of major health systems.

There will certainly be more to this story.

A view at some variance, but winding up in the same place, is expressed by Dr. Jayne in HIStalk.

Categories: Latest News, Opinion, and Soapbox.

Comments

  1. Michael Servetus

    It is possible that the facts as you state here are wrong or incomplete.
    Kaiser has said that the patient had undergone a full consult that addressed the issues.
    In the night, the family wanted to speak with the doctor. There was no plan or indication of change of care plan.
    The telemedicine coverage allowed the patient to receive a higher level of care than the hospital could provide without the telemedicine coverage. It allowed the patient to be admitted and remain in the local hospital rather than be transferred some distance away.
    That is an entirely different scenario.
    Unfortunately, Kaiser is not in a position to fully discuss due to privacy rules.

    The worst thing in healthcare is to decide without the facts. Same is true in Journalism.

    • Donna Cusano

      Michael, on balance what the family and Kaiser stated were the facts, as they saw them. Reread bullet #1, then the rest. My overall objection was to the handling of a vital conversation with a ventilated patient who had trouble with comprehension delivered via a video consult. There was no human intermediation, which contradicts what Kaiser stated. Where was the patient care advocate? A chaplain? It was poorly handled at a critical point and no weasel words from Kaiser will mitigate that.

      Mr. Quintana lived the last few days of his life in the hospital. It would have been helpful for Kaiser to disclose what they did to make him comfortable. Kaiser did not exactly show a human and caring face when confronted with a bad perceptual problem, did they?

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