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Boom Time for Death Planning

“I just lost it,” she recalled. “It was confusing to me, because I loved my job. I was happy in the most obvious ways, but there was part of me …” She wasn’t sure how to describe the upswell of emotion.

Around this time, Ms. Chen was advising health care companies in commercial strategy. While interviewing last-line cancer physicians, she would constantly run a calculation in the back of her head: “If this treatment extends life by three months, how much money is it worth?” And yet she’d wonder: But at what quality of life? The system of prolonging life at all costs seemed out of whack.

Ms. Chen had also recently lost her grandfather, who died at 95 after a long period of suffering. He lived in Taiwan, where death in very old age is treated as a celebration, Ms. Chen said. And yet there had been a lot of family conflict around the experience.

Amid the pain and relief of her grandfather’s being at rest and the joyful commemoration of his life, Ms. Chen understood that she needed a new path. She didn’t yet know what it would be, but a few years later she met Mark Zhang, a palliative care physician and technologist, at an M.I.T. health care “hackathon.” The pair won first place at the event and went on to found Cake. The platform now includes resources and templates to help users write their obituaries along with guidance for how to get them published.

The venture-backed company makes money through partnerships and will eventually add fee-based services. The pandemic has been especially busy. Cake’s services, for example, soon will be integrated into the website of the British bank RBS/NatWest.

In April, Ms. Chen learned that Partners HealthCare, a large health care system in Massachusetts, was recommending Cake to all its members. Ariadne Labs, run out of the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, also came calling. They wanted help distributing their end-of-life conversation guide beyond a relatively small audience of doctors and patients. They also wanted real-time feedback from a young and healthy audience like Cake’s.

Cake also teamed up with Providence Health System, a network of 51 hospitals and 1,000 clinics in seven states, to share Cake’s “trusted decision maker” form, the document specifying an individual’s medical preferences if the person becomes incapacitated. Through Cake, individuals could submit the form to their doctor without needing a notary and two nonfamily witnesses, which are often required but difficult to get under quarantine.

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