Although effective palliative care has always been a must-have for patients and caregivers facing serious illness, it hasn’t always been readily available. With the emergence of value-based healthcare models—and their potent incentives to reduce avoidable readmissions—there is renewed hope that such care will be accessible to those who need it.
Palliative and end-of-life care have long been promoted as core skills for hospitalists. The topic has regularly been included at SHM annual meetings and other prominent hospital medicine conferences, in the American Board of Internal Medicine blueprint for recognition of focused practice in hospital medicine, and in a number of influential references for hospitalists. Still, as I look at hospitalist programs around the country, there is a clear need to improve hospitalists’ delivery of palliative and end-of-life care.
Care of patients with chronic illness in their last two years of life accounts for a third of all Medicare spending.1 As hospitalists, we encounter many of these patients as they are hospitalized—and often re-hospitalized. Palliative care, which can improve quality of life and decrease costs for patients while leading to increased satisfaction and better outcomes for caregivers, can help alleviate unneeded and unwanted aggressive interventions like hospitalization.2,3
In its 2014 report, Dying in America, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) identified several areas for improvement, including better advance care planning and payment systems supporting high quality end-of-life care.4 As I write this column in mid 2016, there are two notable achievements since the IOM report: two E&M codes for advance care planning and a substantial and growing number of hospitalist patients in alternative payment models like bundled payments or ACOs.5 I believe we are entering a time when the availability of good palliative care will be accelerated due to broader forces in healthcare that for the first time align incentives between patients’ wishes and how care is paid for.
Palliative Care Skills for Hospitalists
The following are key actions for physicians in addressing palliative care for the hospitalized patient. At the risk of oversimplifying the discipline, I offer a few key actions for hospitalists to keep in mind.
Identify patients who would benefit from palliative care. The surprise question—“Would I be surprised if this patient died in the next year?”—has the ability to predict which patients would benefit from palliative care. In one observation from a group of patients with cancer, a “no” answer identified 60% of patients who died within a year.6 The surprise question has previously been shown to be predictive in other cancer and non-cancer populations.7,8
Weisman and Meier suggest using the following in a checklist at the time of hospital admission as “primary criteria to screen for unmet palliative care needs”:9
- The surprise question
- Frequent admissions
- Admission prompted by difficult-to-control physical or psychological symptoms
- Complex care requirements
- Decline in function, feeding intolerance, or unintended decline in weight
Hold a “goals of care” meeting. A notable step forward for supporting conversations between physicians and patients occurred on Jan. 1, when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the Advance Care Planning E&M codes. These are CPT codes 99497 and 99498. They can be used on the same day as other E&M codes and cover discussions regarding advance care planning issues including discussing advance directives, appointing a healthcare proxy or durable power of attorney, discussing a living will, or addressing orders for life-sustaining treatment like the role of hydration or future hospitalizations. (For more information on how to use them, visit the CMS website and search for the FAQ.)
What should hospitalists concentrate on when having “goals of care” conversations with patients and caregivers? Ariadne Labs, a Harvard-affiliated health innovation group, offers the following as elements of a serious illness conversation:10