Although the aim of glaucoma management is to maintain visual function, the role of the ophthalmologist does not end once a patient has lost useful vision.
Speaking at the Glaucoma Symposium during the 2017 Glaucoma 360 meeting, Robert L. Stamper, MD, discussed care for patients with end-stage glaucoma, including provision of palliative measures, counseling on resources that will enable a reasonable lifestyle, compassion, and hope.
“It is important for us not to abandon end-stage glaucoma patients because we feel failure or frustration or because they are blind,” said Dr. Stamper, professor of clinical ophthalmology, director emeritus of the Glaucoma Service, University of California, San Francisco. “The fact is there is still a lot we can do for them.”
Dr. Stamper pointed out that when physicians cannot slow the process towards blindness, they need to be knowledgeable about other assistance they can provide. “We need to communicate to patients the services that are available,” he added. “We should always offer comfort and sympathy.”
In the contemporary era and despite the best of care, up to 11% of glaucoma patients become blind or visually disabled. Dr. Stamper suggested that once a patient has lost a considerable amount of vision, it is time to talk about the possibility that significant visual disability may be forthcoming.
“It is important to acknowledge the patient’s feelings of helplessness, isolation, and loss of independence,” Dr. Stamper said. “It is not a bad idea to acknowledge your own feelings of frustration at not having been able to stop the inextricable downhill course.”
Having the patient’s family or friend present for the discussion can help the individual recall and process the information later. The conversation might include a suggestion that the patient seek a second opinion.
“Keep in mind that no physician can think of every option for every situation, so offer the patient the idea of seeing another glaucoma specialist or consider discussing the case with a respected colleague,” Dr. Stamper said.
When conversing with these patients, physicians should choose their words carefully, remaining sensitive to cultural differences and the perceptions that blindness may have for a particular individual. They also should be alert for signs that the patient is depressed.
“Help the patient understand that visual disability is not the end of things, but rather the beginning of a different type of life,” Dr. Stamper said.
“If the patient seems depressed, however, discuss psychotherapy, and be proactive about finding out whether the patient has thought about hurting himself or herself and thus requires urgent psychiatric referral,” he added.