What is Palliative Care?

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Too often when people hear the words Palliative Care, they immediately assume they are going to begin a conversation about end of life comfort care. Part of this is true but it’s not the most accurate picture.

Robin Stawasz of CareFirst NY  in Painted Post explains, “Palliative Care is a multi-disciplinary approach to caring for patients with a serious illness, focusing on providing relief from the burdens of their symptoms.” Stawasz is a licensed medical social worker and the Director of Innovation for CareFirst.  She believes that Palliative Care discussions should begin upon diagnosis and stresses that the disease may or may not be terminal and still warrants a certain level of Palliative Care.

For example, a patient with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) will experience various symptoms that can significantly limit their quality of life and dramatically alter the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. COPD symptoms include coughing and wheezing, breathlessness and tightness in the chest area. Because this is a chronic condition and the symptoms can feel debilitating if not addressed, help from a trained Palliative healthcare professional can make a noticeable difference.

These trained healthcare professionals coordinate a comprehensive approach to lessening the burdens of the symptoms of a serious illness. And the care is not limited to only the patient. The goal of Palliative Care is to address and support the needs of the entire family. Physical, medical, mental, spiritual and emotional health are all addressed. It is a holistic approach to care and is the only broad specialty that deals with symptoms at all stages of disease.

Stawasz shares that Palliative Care has had a tremendous impact on patient and provider satisfaction. “It is a medical specialty that has been shown to increase patient satisfaction, decrease healthcare costs, increase provider satisfaction and increase length of life,” Stawasz notes. She stresses however that while these findings are encouraging, there’s still tremendous work to be done to help raise awareness about Palliative Care and its benefits.

Hospice, for example, is a well-known service in Care Compass Network’s 9-county region  and people correctly associate Hospice Care with the final phase of life. What patients and their families most likely do not understand is that Hospice is only one form of Palliative Care. How do patients and families become better educated on the difference? Ideally, they are hearing about Palliative Care from their Primary Care providers.

Dan Ayres and his team at Catskill Area Hospice and Palliative Care (CAHPA) have been communicating with Primary Care professionals about this topic since the start of this year. He joined CAHPA in October of 2016 and assumed the role of President and CEO in December. Ayres is very passionate about getting the word out. “We’ve held over 30 education and training sessions for practitioners and administrators,” he commented. “Referrals are coming in and the census is growing which is a good sign.”

Still, Ayres shares Stawasz’s opinion that there is more work needed to be done.  Palliative Care is one of the 11 Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (DSRIP) projects for Care Compass Network and its partners and both Ayres and Stawasz are members of the project team. Under the DSRIP mission, healthcare organizations are tasked with transitioning from a pay-per-service model to pay-for-performance when it pertains to Medicaid patients.  One goal is to decrease hospitalizations and avoidable emergency visits by 25% over the course of five years. The more patients and family members are aware of Palliative Care, the better symptoms can be managed from home, or in a home care setting.

Palliative Care specialists can help family members become more familiar with how to help their loved one manage pain or tend to a symptom. If they see the signs and can get ahead of it, the patient will be able to continue to be more comfortable in a familiar setting without the stress of rushing to the hospital. Tina Snyder, Vice President of Clinical Services at CAHPC uses the example of a care giver helping a family member going through cancer treatment, “Sometimes mouth sores or stomatitis can present as a side effect of certain types of chemotherapy,” she explains. “A Palliative Care specialist would likely suggest a holistic approach to dealing with the discomfort by talking about intentional changes to diet, suggesting certain medications, incorporating relaxation methods or using aromatherapy.” Snyder explains that even when undergoing curative medical treatment, Palliative Care can have a profound impact on a patient and family.

Anyone looking for Palliative Care  can start by requesting to speak with the Palliative Care team in a physician’s office. If they do not have someone on their staff dedicated to this service, they can refer patients and family members to agencies and organizations within their community. More information about Palliative Care can be found at getpalliativecare.org.