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With help from outside thinkers, hard decisions could be made easier

Imagine that your 83-year-old father has a massive stroke and can no longer communicate. He’s had heart trouble before, but this time, his prospects look grim.

Since you live in your dad’s hometown and you’ve spent a lot of time together, the two of you have talked over the years about what he would want if he was in a situation like this – no heroic measures, nothing to keep him alive if there is little chance of recovery. You tell the medical staff this is what your dad wants and you have his living will to support his wishes.

When your out-of-town siblings arrive, however, they are upset that you’ve talked about your father’s wishes without them. They didn’t know about the living will and claim their dad would never have signed such a document. In an uncomfortable standoff, they insist the hospital staff do everything possible to keep their father alive, and the staff comply.

Your dad stays in the ICU for a month, at a cost of up to $10,000 per day. The cost – financially, emotionally and physically for your father and the family – is excruciating.

Could anything have been done to avoid this awful situation?

The aging U.S. population raises many new challenges, including how to deal with life-threatening or end-of-life decisions. Three out of four people in such conditions are unable to participate in decisions relating to their care. How can a society deal with this? Step one is to acknowledge and talk about it. Step two might be to get ideas from outside the circle of experts.

This month, I’ve asked 23 Executive MBA participants to work with a coalition in the state on how to increase awareness around advanced care planning. Mind you, the EMBAs are mostly non-health care people – they come from tech, research, sales, publishing and other areas of expertise.

They have examined other countries’ approaches, have generated ideas of their own and will present their findings in March to more than 20 stakeholders. My expectation is that they will look at this question from very different perspectives and, I hope, offer ideas the experts might not have considered.

The goals of this project are to expose people who will be future community leaders to issues they don’t usually encounter, to bring forward ideas from unexpected places (the nonexperts), and to work together on solving a challenge that will become even more difficult as we age. Maybe it’s an approach that could be useful for other topics.

Nancy Napier is a distinguished professor at Boise State University;