Doctors are well trained to provide life-prolonging treatments to patients with potentially fatal conditions, but a new documentary suggests they know less about an equally important tool: talking about dying.
“Communication is a skill on par with diagnosis, treatment and prognostication,” said Michael Bernhagen, a producer of the film, “Consider the Conversation 2: Stories about Cure, Relief and Comfort,” which premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Wisconsin Public Television.
Three Madison-area patients and two UW Health doctors are among nearly two dozen patients and doctors in the film, also produced by Terry Kaldhusdal.
Bernhagen, who works at Rainbow Hospice in Jefferson, lost his mother to heart failure and vascular dementia at age 81. Kaldhusdal, a sixth-grade teacher in Dousman, lost his brother to pancreatic cancer at 53.
Their experiences led them to make “Consider the Conversation: A Documentary on a Taboo Subject” in 2011. The film prompted the Wisconsin Medical Society to launch Honoring Choices Wisconsin, a statewide advance care planning initiative.
Doctors who saw the first film asked for another showing how they can talk constructively with patients about dying, Kaldhusdal said. “This one shows doctors and patients having these conversations,” he said.
The two men plan to make a third film about clergy and end-of-life care.
In the new, second film, Dr. Toby Campbell, head of UW Health’s palliative care program, is shown negotiating an intricate dialogue about survival with Laura Schurman, of Madison, who has metastatic lung cancer.
Viewers also see Schurman in her basement, where she labeled her belongings, including her adult son’s art work and trophies. “I know that I need to be prepared,” she says.
Campbell also talks with George Poirier, of Verona, about the results of his lung cancer scan.
Greg Singer, of Sun Prairie, who died before the film was made, is shown at Agrace HospiceCare talking on the phone with his young daughters. His wife, Mariah, talks about his wish not to discuss details of his lung cancer.
Dr. Jim Cleary, an oncologist and director of UW-Madison’s Pain and Policy Studies Group, is also quoted.
Berghagen and Kaldhusdal also spent time with palliative care doctors and patients at Duke University. They interviewed other doctors around the country, including Dr. Diane Meier, of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care.
Doctors are afraid to tell patients they are dying, which leads many patients to die unprepared, Meier says.
“In our own fear, we steal the most important development step from people in the late stages of life, which is the ability to articulate to one another what we mean to one another,” she says.