Despite its growing popularity in hospitals, most Americans remain unaware of the comfort and benefits palliative care can provide some terminally ill patients.
“There is a clear need to inform consumers about palliative care and provide consumers with a definition of palliative care,” researchers commissioned by the Center to Advance Palliative Care advise. According to Public Opinion Research on Palliative Care, seventy percent of the general population doesn’t know anything about palliative care, and 14 percent were “somewhat knowledgeable.”
The researchers also found that it is difficult to inform physicians about palliative care, because they often wrongly equate it with hospice or end of life care.
Palliative care becoming more popular
Palliative care is treatment that enhances comfort and improves the quality of life for patients in life’s last phase. No therapy is excluded from consideration, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO).
Palliative care is becoming increasingly widespread. There are more than 1,600 hospitals that have palliative care programs in the U.S., according to Dr. Diane Meier, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Some 85 percent of large hospitals have a palliative care team. Sixty-seven percent of small hospitals have programs.
Dr. William H. Frist, a heart transplant surgeon and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, recommends palliative care. “[A] brand new field in medicine is making chronic, agonizing, and even terminal illnesses much more manageable… palliative care has emerged as the best solution for those facing serious, painful diseases, and introduces the very real possibility… that we can now live with these diseases for a long time,” he wrote recently for The Week.
Palliative care also costs much less than aggressive end of life regimens. Patients who receive palliative care services cost hospitals between $1,700 and $5,000 less per admission, according to findings published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Hospice care remains overlooked
Hospice care is different from palliative care; its aim is to manage symptoms so that a person’s last days are spent with dignity and quality. The care is not intended to treat the disease but the person, according to the American Cancer Society.
Hospice is most often used when curative treatment is no longer effective, and a terminal patient is expected to live about six months or less.
“Many people believe that hospice is only for people who have cancer. This may be due to the fact that many of the patients cared for in the early days of hospice were cancer patients,” Becky Hillier, public relations director for Rocky Mountain Hospice, wrote for the Montana Standard. Less than 25 percent of hospice patients admitted to the hospice are cancer patients.
The NHPCO reports that 36 percent of hospice patients die or are discharged within seven days of treatment. Many terminally ill suffer more than they need to because they wait to enroll in a hospice program.
“We continue to see more dying Americans opting for hospice care at the end of their lives, yet far too many receive care for a week or less,” said the NCPCO’s J. Donald Schumacher. “We need to reach patients earlier in the course of their illness to ensure they receive the full benefits that hospice and palliative care can offer.”
One reason the terminally ill wait for hospice, he said, is due to the misconception that hospice means giving up.