End-of-Life Choice, Palliative Care and Counseling

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Palliative Care Deserves Physicians’ Attention

By Joe Cantlupe
HealthLeaders Media
July 19, 2012

Do you know about palliative care, the comprehensive treatment for the very sick, but not for those who are dying?

Some doctors do not.

As a physician, do you feel it is a sign of “failure” on your part, when longtime patients have grown tired of treatments, and simply want comfort as they approach end of life?

Some physicians think it is.

As the population ages, and hospitals prepare to care for more chronically ill patients, more physicians should get acquainted with palliative care, to not only to improve patient care, but as a potent cost-savings tool.

With palliative care, hospitals can avoid needless tests and procedures, in part, because patients no longer want them. Palliative care is the comprehensive treatment focused on pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness, or even spiritual assistance for the very sick. Some studies have shown it can extend life.

Still, although not widely practiced, palliative care is becoming part of the discussion among healthcare leaders to improve care, especially for the elderly.  In May, a panel of healthcare leaders met in Chicago as part of a HealthLeaders Media Breakthroughs session that focused on improving readmission rates for hospitalized cardiac patients. The talks veered off into other topics, among them palliative care, as well as hospice, or end of life care.

“Obviously, it’s probably one of the most complex topics we could discuss,” said Greg Johnson, DO, chief medical officer for Parkview Health, Ft. Wayne, IN, during the panel discussion.  ”I also think that when we talk about end-of-life care, we need to approach it with more curiosity and information than with judgment and direction,” Johnson says.

Although there were almost no palliative care programs in America a decade ago, about 63% of hospitals with 50 or more beds have a palliative care team, according to the Center to Advance Palliative Care. It is likely that palliative care is going to expand, but it is still largely misunderstood, even among physicians.

For those patients who are weary of dealing with their pain, tired of medical procedures, and who want to live their days as fully as possible, palliative care may be the answer. In cases of people even more seriously ill, and possibly closer to death, hospice may be the correct treatment option. Too often, physicians don’t pose the question: Patient, what do you want to do?

Bruce Robinson, MD, MPH, director of the chief of geriatric medicine at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Florida told me how, too often, physicians may articulate their hopes for patients, even when it’s a terrible illusion.

“The patients want to keep that hope,” he says. “The doctors want to just do what they do and that’s how they make their living, so they are happy when a patient says, ‘I want you to do something. I want to pretend I’m not dying.’ So stuff gets done.”

Other physicians may not endorse palliative care, or even hospice care, because they wrongly feel those programs may reflect poorly on their own work, healthcare leaders tell me. Some doctors may see those programs as symbolic that they have given up hope, that all those procedures, all the plans for their patients, were for naught. That’s too bad.

At the Breakthroughs session, panel member Johnson raised the point that physicians “feel like it’s a failure” to have such discussions involving palliative or end of life care. That shouldn’t be the case, he says. “We have to be willing to follow-up what the patients’ goals are,” Johnson says.

“Because what I’ve seen too frequently is the patient will have stated their goals of care and then somewhere that gets overwritten. And we see the 94-year-old patient that didn’t’ want anything who is on on a ventilator for a month. And that’s a very sad thing.”

The essential question for palliative care is “how do we manage symptoms so the patient can feel as good as possible, and have optimal life experience? The conversation in chronic care management goes a long way,” said panel member Kathleen Martin, RN, vice president of patient safety and care improvement for Griffin Hospital, Derby, CT.

While palliative care is increasing, its generally poor name recognition, among the public, as well as among healthcare workers, including physicians, is a significant obstacle, Timothy E. Quill, MD, a professor of Medicine, Psychiatry and Mental Humanities at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry tells HealthLeaders Media.

“Palliative care has a name recognition issue,” Quill says. “About 20% of the public may know what it is, but once people and patients learn what it is, their question becomes: ‘why didn’t I get that earlier, why isn’t that the care for all seriously ill people?’ Hospice care has a higher name recognition, but it’s for people at the end of life,” he says.

While there is some uncertainty what exactly is palliative care, some healthcare facilities are offering both palliative and hospice care programs, which they see as crucial to improve care among the elderly, and offering as many options to them as well as their families.

The Hospice of the Valley, in San Jose, CA, is one of those facilities that serves both populations.  There is an increasing need for mental health or community-based programs to assist the patients, says Sally Adelus, president/CEO of the Hospice of the Valley, told HealthLeaders Media.

Because the scope of care is evolving for the elderly populations, it’s important that physicians work closely with families to consider palliative or hospice care options. The Sutter Health system, a network of doctors and hospitals in northern California, has an advanced illness management program that partners with patients and families to better coordinate care for palliative patients and also consider end of life options, says Brad Stuart, MD, chief medical officer at the Sutter Care at Home in Fairfield, Calif.

Stuart says it’s important that both disciplines (palliative and hospice) “collaborate for the best outcomes we can have.” Much of the focus for improved patient care, especially those in palliative care, is moving toward ” focusing on goals of patients in their own lives.”

Even in the hospice and palliative care world, however, there are “turf” struggles, as in many other areas of healthcare, he says. “We’re trying to change the medical culture. It’s an uphill battle,” Stuart says.  Physicians gaining knowledge about such care is a start, he adds.