May 1 , 2006
Palliative care good for
what (seriously) ails you
Michael johns is executive vice president for health affairs.
Focus as we might—and as we should—on wellness and on maintaining health, at some point serious, chronic, debilitating or life-threatening illness will affect almost all of us and our families. In addition to seeking the care of specialists who can treat specific disease or injury, patients and families are increasingly seeking the services of health providers with expertise in palliative care.
Palliative care focuses primarily on promoting quality of life for patients (and their families) living with a serious, chronic or terminal illness. Palliative care specialists—and, increasingly, hospital teams and units devoted to such care—work to provide physical comfort and a variety of related psychological and social supports.
I’m sure many readers already have had personal or family experience with such illness or conditions. For instance, in cancer care or after major surgeries such as an organ transplant, patients can suffer a variety of symptoms and discomforts; pain, nausea, fatigue and depression are not uncommon.
Stress, anxiety and the difficulties of coping with a seriously ill or injured relative can be significant for family members. Studies have shown a high level of patient and family unhappiness with the support traditionally provided to patients for pain and other symptom distress, whether in hospitals, nursing homes or other settings. For decades, hospice care has been available for those who are so severely ill that they are certified as likely to die within six months.
The specialty of palliative care has developed out of, and increasingly in close association with, hospice models. Palliative care specialists enable hospitals and other care settings to address a far wider range of conditions where such care is appropriate. When palliative care is available, there is good evidence that patients recover better and families cope better.
Palliative care expertise is not just good for patients and families. I recently toured the palliative care service of our own Emory Healthcare. On one stop, we visited a cancer unit and met with nursing staff and an oncology resident.
The resident talked about a patient who was weighing the pros and cons of aggressive treatment for a difficult cancer. After the patient asked, “Would the cure be worse than the disease?” the resident had come face to face with how important palliative care is to patient care and to the possibilities for finding effective treatments. His patient was not averse to taking risks or pursuing the most aggressive treatments, but he needed to know what could and would be done so he wouldn’t have to endure unnecessary pain and other debilitating discomforts in the process.
The fact that Emory Healthcare now has a palliative care team, with the latest expertise in relieving physical and other forms of suffering, provides much needed confidence and support—not just for patients and their families, but also for nursing and medical professionals throughout our system who must help patients face tough conditions and decisions every day.
The next time you or a loved one is looking for the best care for a serious or debilitating illness or injury, check to be sure that a palliative care specialist or team will be available. This can include palliative care nurses and/or physician experts, as well as other team members in anesthesia, pharmacy, social work, chaplaincy and other fields.
There is no doubt that palliative care is an essential part of the best in health care practice—or that it’s good for what seriously ails you.