DIAGNOSING A TERMINAL ILLNESS:
IS IT SIX MONTHS OR LESS?
According to Federal laws governing hospice, a physician can
only certify a patient as "eligible" for hospice
benefits (under Medicare) if the patient's life expectancy
can reasonable be expected to be six months or less. This is
simply a statistical average life expectancy given a specific
diagnosis...it may or may not be true for any one individual
patient. While some patients may live much longer than six
months, there are others who only live two weeks or so. Each
patient's situation must be evaluated on an individual
It is common for hospice staff to hear families' accounts
of "predictions" about how long their loved one would
live. While some of these predictions are quite accurate, some
are not, and debates arise as to whether or not predictions
should even be made. The problem is not easily resolved, since
most of us would be the first to ask the physician, "how
long will it be?" And the physician is placed in the awkward
position of predicting that which cannot always be accurately
known, even though he or she wants to give the patient and family
the best hope. However, it is certain that nobody really knows
for sure, and it's not over till death actually occurs. We
encourage you not to rely too much on predictions, and to make
the best of the time that is left, however long it may be.
Hospice staff are well aware of some patients who have lived
well beyond the six months period. What happens then? Hospice
care continues as long as needed to meet the patient's and
family's needs. The physician simply "re-certifies"
the patient for another period of time and services continue.