Saudi ARAMCO Medical Services Organization
May 24-26, 2010

I participated in a fascinating international medical conference at the Saudi ARAMCO hospital in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I was invited to speak on palliative care topics during a geriatric and palliative care conference by Dr. Richard Dupee, chief, Geriatrics Service, Tufts Medical Center. Dr. Charles Cefalu, a geriatrician at Louisiana State University joined us as a speaker.

During the conference we spoke about a number of typical geriatric topics including the management of behavioral problems in dementia, the evaluation and prevention of falls and urinary incontinence. In an overview of the concept of palliative care, I discussed the evaluation and treatment of delirium, talked about artificial nutrition and hydration and discussed techniques for difficult conversations among other topics. I found discussing many of these topics challenging given the vast cultural differences seen in the Arab world.

While I wasn’t lecturing I met with a number of physicians, nurses and hospital leaders and discussed hospice and palliative medicine concepts. The hospital is interested in establishing a palliative care service as well as a home health care service, but they face significant cultural barriers. For example the concept of “Do Not Resuscitate” is only very recent development in the hospital and the concept is still not widely endorsed by many physicians, patients or families. I got the impression most patients and families expect to have resuscitation attempts no matter the underlying disease process or prognosis.

When I discussed the lack of evidence of benefit for gastrostomy tubes in patients with advanced dementia, many in the audience voiced anecdotally based skepticism. It appeared to me that patients, families and physicians simply expect patients with advanced dementia will receive tube feedings. Additionally the physicians mentioned they are prohibited from prescribing strong opioids for non-malignant pain and methadone is not available in the country of Saudi Arabia.

Despite these challenges the staff is ready to proceed with developing a palliative care program and home health care. It will be interesting to see how the significant cultural challenges will impact the progress of their work, and I look forward to working with them in the future.