The basic clinical skills needed to perform palliative medicine include:
- Titrating opioid analgesics;
- Using adjuvant pain medications;
- Managing nonpain-related symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, constipation, dyspnea, seizures, and anorexia;
- Managing delirium, anxiety, and depression;
- Communicating sensitive information;
- Working with cultural issues and differences; and
- Bereavement support for families.
“Every hospitalist should know how to elicit a patient’s goals of care and incorporate them into routine treatment, be fluid and comfortable discussing advance-care planning, and possess basic skills in pain management,” says Jeanie Youngwerth, MD, hospitalist and director of the palliative-care service at the University of Colorado Denver. “Unfortunately, we’re not there yet as a field, given current residency training in internal medicine. Our center has a hospitalist residency training track, and those residents all get dedicated, palliative care experience.”
Knowing when to refer a patient to a palliative-care specialist is another important skill, Dr. Youngwerth explains. The CARING criteria, developed by Dr. Youngwerth’s colleagues at UC Denver, are a simple set of prognostic markers that identify patients with limited life expectancy at the time of hospital admission. The CARING criteria are a set of prognostic criteria that incorporate cancer diagnosis, repeated hospital admissions, ICU stays with multi-organ failure, residence in a nursing home, and meeting non-cancer hospice guidelines developed by the National Hospice Organization, which collectively correlate with the need for a palliative-care consultation (see Table 1, above).2
A simpler way to initially assess a patient’s need for palliative care is to ask yourself: Would you be surprised if you found out this patient had died within a year? “If physicians don’t think the patient is going to be alive in a year, then they should incorporate palliative care into the care plan,” Dr. Youngwerth says. “The next question is: Should I do it myself, or refer for a palliative-care consultation?”
Dr. Bekanich, who starting this month will head a new palliative care program at the University of Miami that features a 10-bed inpatient unit, encourages hospitalists to avoid focusing only on terminally ill patients when considering a palliative consult. Any seriously ill patient with unmet needs could benefit from a referral, he says.
“Lots of hospitalists are good at controlling nausea and vomiting, but if the symptoms are refractory or have uncommon presentations, I would like to get on board as the palliative care consultant,” Dr. Bekanich says. “I have also tried to emphasize to my group the importance of timely family meetings.