If you’ve ever known someone who was extremely ill or dying, then you’ve probably experienced the confusion, frustration and pain of seeing that person suffer – and you likely understand the importance of a growing area of medicine called palliative care.
Comprehensive, compassionate care given to the very ill or dying to ease their suffering and help them make informed decisions about treatment is relatively new.
St. Joseph Hospital, Orange offers a Palliative Medicine Program that includes pain and symptom management, counseling and coordination of outpatient services. The primary focus is to maximize the quality of life for patients by treating each one individually – addressing physical, emotional, social, spiritual and financial needs.
“We treat the patient holistically,” says Dr. Vincent Nguyen, the Director of St. Joseph Hospital’s Palliative Medicine Program. “With the care we offer, we can improve the quality of life – and many cases we then prolong the lives of patients.”
Palliative care emerged out of a growing concern in the medical community that when doctors feel compelled to do something to help a very ill patient, too often the resulting treatments cause more harm than good.
“More treatment is not necessarily better,” says Nguyen. “With advanced cancer, for instance, with a third or fourth round of chemo treatment, a patient may not be restored to a previous level of health.”
This is a major shift that some prominent doctors say is long overdue. “You don’t have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illnesses to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help,” writes physician and author Atul Gawande in his 2014 bestselling book “Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End.” Gawande makes the case for doctors helping patients to make the decisions brased on the quality of life – and being clear about these options.
“Families need help when they are faced with these decisions,” says Nguyen. “People are afraid – and they turn to their doctors, and want doctors to be honest with them.”
As baby boomers age, palliative care will only become more important and relevant. More than 43 million people in the United States are 65 and older, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
And older people are living longer: In 2012, the number of people who were between 65 and 74 was more than 10 times larger than in 1900.
But palliative care is not just for the elderly. Patients can receive it at any point during an illness, not just at the end stages – and wherever they are, whether it’s a hospital, at home, in a long-term care facility or in hospice care.
Nguyen’s team at St. Joseph Hospital includes doctors, nurses and social workers with palliative care training. One of their key responsibilities is facilitating communication between the treating doctors and the family and patient, so that everyone is clear about the prognosis and treatment options. The team eases stress and anxiety by offering counseling and spiritual guidance to patients. When faced with a patient who is dying, it’s not unheard of for a treating doctor to withdraw from contact with that patient and the family. Palliative care offers an opposite approach – with finely tuned care, communication and support, even death can be more bearable.
According to a study reported in the March 2015 issue of the “Journal of Palliative Care,” family members of patients who died while receiving care in a palliative care unit reported higher overall satisfaction and emotional support before death as compared to usual care.
Facts about palliative care
- From 2000-2012, the number of hospitals with a palliative care team increased from 658 to 1,734 – an increase of 163.5 percent.
- Palliative care effectively relieves physical symptoms and emotional suffering.
- Palliative care strengthens patient-family-physician communication and decision-making.
- Palliative care ensures well-coordinated care across health care settings.
- Palliative care is an important part of medical care, particularly because an increasing number of Americans are living with serious and chronic illness.
- Palliative care eases the overwhelming caregiving burdens faced by patients’ families, through a strong partnership of patient, family and palliative care team.
Source: Center to Advance Palliative Care