11/05/2012 03:18 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Exorbitant Cost of Dying


We've heard the statistic before, but it's useful to be reminded of the exact numbers:

Medicare costs are already expected to reach $830 billion a year by 2017. About one-quarter -- or $208 billion -- will be spent on people in the final year of their lives.

And what will that exorbitantly-expensive care do? In many cases, not much. And sometimes it will hurt more than help.

The statistic comes from "The Cost of Dying: Simple Act of Feeding Poses Painful Choices" by Lisa M. Krieger at the San Jose Mercury News. The piece is about a very small piece of medical equipment, so simple and common that we rarely stop to give it much thought: the feeding tube. It is used on one-third of demented nursing home residents who have forgotten how to eat, Krieger reports. The surprise is that these small plastic tubes are "contributing to a growing device market worth $1.64 billion annually."

She reports that feeding tubes can help some patients initially, but they can also keep them alive long past the time that they would have died. As one woman says of her mother, "She was trapped, unable to make the choice to die."

The story is part of a series of articles that the Mercury News has run this year on the high cost of dying. The series began in February with Krieger's moving story of her 88-year-old father's last days.

Krieger didn't stop when others might have, after what must have been the excruciating work of writing about her father's death. (Memoir is not cathartic, as so many people seem to think. It's hard, and it hurts.) She stayed with the story, a mark of a good reporter.

There is a lot to savor here. If you missed these stories, go back and take a look.

-- Paul Raeburn

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

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