Chances are, the hospital where you work has a palliative-care team, and figuring out how to work with it could make your job easier.
In fact, according to the 2015 Palliative Care Report Card from the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC), 67 percent of hospitals with 50 or more beds had a designated palliative care program.1
While core palliative care skills can be performed by frontline clinicians including hospitalists, specialty palliative care consults are the ones who are called in for complicated cases. The Hospitalist asked several palliative care experts for advice on how to clarify definitions, distinctions, and roles. This is what they told us:
Palliative care is not synonymous with end-of-life care.
Palliative care advocates call this the biggest misconception they struggle to overcome, with the potential to inhibit its contributions to patient care in the hospital. Palliative care, they say, is for any patient with a serious illness who is struggling to cope with the fallout from that illness in their lives.
“Our biggest impact can come earlier in the illness,” says Jeanie Youngwerth, MD, director of the University of Colorado Hospital’s Palliative Care Consult Service in Aurora. “We help people do the best they can for as long as they can. If you’re even considering a palliative-care consult, then do it sooner rather than later.”
Palliative care can offer more than just help with difficult conversations, adds Daniel Fischberg, MD, PhD, FAAHPM, medical director of the Pain and Palliative Care Department at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu. For example, the palliative-care team can work with patients to clarify their expectations and goals for care, plan for what comes next, and address troubling symptoms—whether physical or emotional, Dr. Fischberg says.
“We can really help patients and families who are facing unique and challenging needs,” he says.
The experts also say that palliative care is not synonymous with hospice care, which is a comprehensive service that provides specialized terminal care for patients with a prognosis of six months or fewer to live. Both, however, share many of the same principles and techniques of symptom management and psycho-social-spiritual support. But some patients and families may associate a palliative-care referral with hospice care or have other misconceptions and fears about it. Hospitalists are challenged to provide a consistent message clarifying that palliative care can be helpful for seriously ill patients regardless of prognosis or other medical treatments they’re receiving.
“It’s human nature not to want to deal with our mortality, and any word that gets associated with death and dying can turn people off,” says Joseph Rotella, MD, chief medical officer of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM). “The best way to prevent this is to define it in terms of patient and family needs: ‘Let’s bring in our comfort specialists.’ Doctors should not apologize when referring to a service that has proven its value. We should be happy to recommend it often and early.”
Patients with serious illness can benefit from palliative care.
CAPC defines palliative care as “specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses.” It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness, regardless of their diagnosis, at any age and at any stage of a serious illness. This service is provided by a specially trained interdisciplinary palliative-care team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists who work together with patients’ other doctors. Their goal is to improve quality of life for both patients and their families with an extra layer of support.