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Soc Sci Med. 2011 Jan;72(1):6-14. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.09.052. Epub 2010 Nov 11.

Ironic technology: Old age and the implantable cardioverter defibrillator in US health care.

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University of California, Institute for Health and Aging, San Francisco, CA 94118, USA.


We take the example of cardiac devices, specifically the implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, to explore the complex cultural role of technology in medicine today. We focus on persons age 80 and above, for whom ICD use is growing in the U.S. We highlight an ironic feature of this device. While it postpones death and 'saves' life by thwarting a lethal heart rhythm, it also prolongs living in a state of dying from heart failure. In that regard the ICD is simultaneously a technology of life extension and dying. We explore that irony among the oldest age group -- those whose considerations of medical interventions are framed by changing societal assumptions of what constitutes premature death, the appropriate time for death and medicine's goals in an aging society. Background to the rapidly growing use of this device among the elderly is the 'technological imperative' in medicine, bolstered today by the value given to evidence-based studies. We show how evidence contributes to standards of care and to the expansion of Medicare reimbursement criteria. Together, those factors shape the ethical necessity of physicians offering and patients accepting the ICD in late life. Two ethnographic examples document the ways in which those factors are lived in treatment discussions and in expectations about death and longevity.

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