Valerie Phillips was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer in 2010 and is a shining example of the difference a palliative care consultation can make. After she was diagnosed, the Austin, Texas, native continued to work and enjoy a relatively normal life. But when the disease metastasized to her hip, she began to take opioid analgesics for the pain.
Phillips says she felt foolish when she ended up in the ED, profoundly uncomfortable from a four-day impaction due to the analgesic and oral cancer drugs. “But nobody told me about all that,” she says.
She thinks her oncologist was giving good care, “but her area was treating the disease.”
Upon admission, a hospitalist referred Phillips for an inpatient palliative care consultation with Stephen Bekanich, MD, a former hospitalist who now co-directs Seton Palliative Care for the Seton Health System in Austin.
“I learned there’s a big difference between fighting the disease and treating the needs of the patient as a person,” Phillips explains. “A palliative care doctor like Stephen changes everything. He found a way for me to better navigate the healthcare system, carrying all of that information in his head. He said to me, ‘OK, we’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again.’
I trusted him—and it worked.” Phillips says she understands that her long-term prospects aren’t great, and she expects to enroll in hospice soon. She hasn’t been back to the hospital, but has continued to see Dr. Bekanich as an outpatient.
“For me, there was an informational and educational gap, and I have a master’s degree and a career in management,” she says. “Stephen was able to tie everything together for me.”
Phillips says hospitalists should focus on the connection between disease treatment and the quality of life palliative care affords. “They should go hand in hand. Patients should be able to count on somebody who can take us by the hand and make the whole process as painless—and worry-free—as possible.”