Blair Horner: Helping patients with serious illnesses

Today’s health system often falls short in addressing the pain, physical symptoms, emotional concerns, and other chronic care needs that patients face. These needs are increasingly the norm for cancer patients and their caregivers.  As medical care advances, illnesses that were death sentences a few decades ago have now become chronic illnesses that need to be managed.    As a result, quality of life care needs now span over many years or even decades.

Although the reasons for inadequate quality of life care of the seriously ill are many, most stem from a medical culture that is focused on curing individual diseases and a health system that is designed to reimburse disease-specific care. 

Evidence accumulating over the past decade has consistently demonstrated the benefits of a new way of improving patients’ quality of life and addressing the harmful effects of pain, symptoms and emotional distress as well as family caregiver burden.  The term used for this new approach is “palliative care.” 

Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses.  This type of care is focused on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness.  The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. 

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, and other specialists who work with the patient’s other medical providers to provide an extra layer of support.  Palliative care is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and can be provided together with curative treatment.

The provision of palliative care can lead to a more efficient health care system by decreasing costs without reducing services, while offering better treatments for patients.

Given the growing evidence of the benefits of palliative care, it’s encouraging news that patient advocacy groups are urging members of Congress to consider supporting three important pieces of legislation.

The first bill is called the “Patient Centered Quality of Life Act.”

This legislation puts in place the building blocks of a national effort to unify patient care by treating pain and other symptoms of chronic disease leading to increased patient satisfaction and quality of life.  The legislation combines a focus on research into palliative care and establishes a workforce training initiative to ensure sufficient numbers of health professionals at all levels to directly provide palliative care.

The second bill is the “Palliative Care Delivery Act.”

This legislation creates a Medicare-based payment incentive to each hospital that establishes an interdisciplinary team (doctor, nurse, social worker and others) to deliver palliative care to manage the symptoms and needs of patients with chronic disease.

The third bill is the “Palliative Care Education and Training Act.”

This legislation addresses a major barrier facing the expansion of palliative care by training medical school faculty and by creating new incentives for the training and development of interdisciplinary health professionals in palliative care.

People who are experiencing chronic illness – such as cancer – should know that the nation is focusing its resources to help them in a humane and cost-effective way.  Palliative care is critical in helping patients to manage their pain and ensure that they focus on what is most important – getting better – instead of trying to deal with the impacts their treatment is having on their lives.

Urge your members of Congress to bolster the nation’s palliative care system.  It could be the system that helps us all.

ir Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.