Category Archives: palliative care

Palliative care. Like hospice, the interdisciplinary approach of palliative care focuses on providing comfort for seriously ill patients, regardless of age. Unlike hospice, comfort care is not limited to those with a terminal diagnosis and can be offered at the same time as a patient is pursuing curative treatment.

Magical Thinking in End-of-Life Issues

Recently I had a chance to see how the human heart and spirit can overrule the rational mind, even in hypothetical circumstances. At a local educational event  on palliative and hospice care, a woman in her 80s in the audience was attentive and engaged during the presentation. During the discussion that followed the presentation, she talked about how she wanted to look into becoming an organ donor.

But then, she asked the experts if her heart stopped and if she had decided to opt for CPR but it didn’t work, “Can’t there be a miracle?” In other words, before being pronounced dead, couldn’t there be some other way to revive her and enable her to live on? And would she be pronounced dead before her miracle kicked in?

We all want miracles, do we not? We want to have hope when all evidence points to the contrary. That’s why I found her question so poignant, so human. This woman, who had at first seemed to be a realist regarding the question of mortality – accepting it on an intellectual level – was at the same time wandering in the realm of magical thinking.

We’re all susceptible, truth be told. But there are a few things to keep in mind to avoid wandering into this realm ourselves.

I blogged about it for the website sixtyandme.com, and you can read it here:

Wishing you all a wonderful start to summer, this coming weekend!

What the Health Care Debate Didn’t Debate

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If you were hoping that a 90-minute debate about the health care system would shed some light on what the Federal government could/should/shouldn’t address, going forward, you were in for serious disappointment.

On Feb. 7, CNN aired that debate between Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Ted Cruz. It really wasn’t about health care, as much as it was about health insurance. More specifically, it rehashed many of the tired and largely superficial arguments — on both sides — that we’d heard about Obamacare during the 2016 campaign. The one issue Sens. Sanders and Cruz seemed to agree about was that drug costs are too high.

If you don’t want to watch the debate for yourself on demand, or read the full transcript (although I’d recommend it), I will sum it up for you: Sen. Sanders believes that health care is a right; that we pay more for health care in the U.S. than other countries and get far less; that drug company executives earn obscenely high salaries; and that there should be Medicare for all. Sen. Cruz believes that government should not be in control of our health care, that it should not get between us and our doctors; that we shouldn’t have rationing the way they do in Europe and Canada; that people should be able to buy health insurance across state lines; and that competition will solve our problems.

What they didn’t talk about were some of the fundamental reasons why our health care system is so stressed. Just a few in the realm of elder care: the cost of treatment and caring for people with multiple chronic conditions; the high cost (and reasons behind) hospital readmissions; the challenge of improving care for people in rural areas; the coming wave of aging baby boomers in need of care; the challenge of providing care for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias; the high cost of surgeries and other treatments for the ill in their last two years of life; the cascade of issues for those in intensive care units (ICUs) through the end of life.

Nor did they discuss the possible consequences of doing away with some of the more promising demonstration projects by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)’ Innovation Center  – authorized by the Affordable Care Act – designed to improve the quality of health care (and containing costs). The two I’d keep an eye on: Independence at Home; and Care Choices.

The CNN  debate featured a number of real people from various parts of the country and  various walks of life, with pressing health care dilemmas and questions for the Senators. You may not be surprised to learn that neither Senator answered those questions directly, but rather treated them as jumping-off points to return to their main messages.

One particular exchange that was disheartening to me (and it was not the focus of a broader discussion, by any means), happened about one-third of the way into the debate. In his advocating against rationing and in favor of people “exercising free choice,” Sen. Cruz had this to say:

“We could cut costs here if we do like Europe and cut the number of MRIs, the number of mammograms. If we cut — you know, you look at the elderly in much of Europe. The elderly here, when the elderly face life-threatening diseases, they’re often treated in the intensive care unit. In Europe, they’re often put in palliative care, essentially doped up with some drugs, and said, ‘Well, now is your time to go.’”

(To which Sen. Sanders’ response, in total, was “Oh.”)

Let’s take Sen. Cruz’ colossal misunderstanding, or mischaracterizing, of what palliative care is all about. First, it is all about patient-centered care. That is, it’s about figuring out what’s important to a patient facing serious illness – in simple terms, what does a good day look like to that person? — and helping him or her achieve it. Second, it does that through symptom management, which means alleviating pain, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. Third, it does not interfere with curative treatment the patient might be receiving from other physicians. Fourth, it is appropriate for anyone, of any age, struggling with a serious illness, not necessarily one that is life-limiting.

But what about his statement about the intensive care unit? He seemed to be saying that this is a beneficial thing for the elderly facing life-threatening diseases. The reality is that for a frail elder at the close of life, an ICU stay can seem more like an assault than a medical miracle. (If our lawmakers doubt that, I’d advise that they watch the short documentary film Extremis.

We may not see much clarity about health care emanating from Washington any time soon. Now that we have a new head of Health and Human Services, will that hasten Obamacare being replaced? Will it be replaced or repaired this year or next year? In what form? Who knows? If this debate was any indication, it doesn’t seem likely that the quality of the discussion about it is going to be terribly enlightening.

 

6 Steps To Take for Better End-of-Life Care

I was honored recently to be asked by the Berkeley, California-based Greater Good Science Center to do an essay, based on my experiences as a hospice volunteer and reporting/researching my book. Here are the highlights:

* Educate yourself about the different key treatments for end-of-life care, so that you can make informed decisions.
* Start conversations with loved ones so that they are clear about your wishes for care.
* Understand the benefits of palliative care and hospice care and know when to ask for them.
* Learn how to communicate effectively with doctors and medical staff.
* Research nursing and assisted living facilities in your community, in case you need them.
* Advocate for better end-of-life care for everyone.

You can read the full essay here

When Less is More for Elders

curingmedicarecover2 Sometimes Andy Lazris is not popular with the adult children of the very old people he sees in his practice as an internist and geriatrician as well as in his role as medical director at assisted living and skilled nursing facilities. Why? Because his is a “less is more” approach to care for elders who typically live with multiple chronic conditions. He believes in fewer diagnostic tests, less clinging to the orthodoxy of “ideal” numbers gauging, for example, glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol. His focus is on helping his patients live a better life, and he favors better nutrition, more physical activity and social engagement. He also has a deep appreciation of the fact that aging, decline – mortality itself — are inevitable facts of life.

That approach is hard for caregivers to accept sometimes, particularly when we are all bombarded by news or advertisements for near miraculous results offered by new drugs and leading-edge treatments and surgical procedures. So off they may go to medical specialists whose approach may be wholly different, but not necessarily better and often far worse in terms of the elder’s quality of life.

Ironically, Medicare is at the heart of the disconnect between the kind of care elders mostly want and what they get – over-testing, over-treatment and over-medication. In its pursuit of quality and thoroughness in elder care, Dr. Lazris says, Medicare rewards aggressive measures by paying for tests, treatments and procedures.

Dr. Lazris explores the many implications of Medicare policies in a new book, “Curing Medicare,” to be published this May by Cornell University Press. Through stories about patients and his own challenges in dealing with the health care system, he shows how these policies often achieve the precise opposite of what they were intended to do.

My own view is that as baby boomers age over the next decade or two, Medicare policies dealing specifically with palliative and hospice care will need a radical overhaul. So I was glad to have had the opportunity to talk recently with Dr. Lazris about his book. His aim is to educate the patients and family members who are keenly interested in how our health system works.

He is hoping that readers will use the information to foster conversations with their doctors. He doubts that this will help fix the health care system, but, he said, “Do it on a small scale. Advocate for yourself, on an individual level.”

An outstanding discussion in the book addresses the differences between “absolute risk” and “relative risk” in assessing various treatment options, a subject Dr. Lazris told me he talks “incessantly” about in public speaking engagements. In 2007, Erik Rifkin, PhD, and Edward J. Bouwer, PhD, wrote a book called “The Illusion of Certainty: Health Benefits and Risks,” in which they present the elegant “Risk Characterization Theater,” a graphic of a hypothetical 1,000-seat theater, to explain the difference between absolute and relative risk. You can learn about it here. The graphic reprises its role in “Curing Medicare.”

Misunderstanding the difference between the two helps to explain the tremendous overuse, in Dr. Lazris’ view, of the blood-thinning drug Coumadin, for example. And in a recent blog post, Dr. Lazris applied the Risk Characterization Theater” to analyze recent findings about the potential risks of proton pump inhibitors – drugs like Prilosec – related to chronic kidney disease.

Published studies, he said, are all about relative risk; adding that physicians don’t know enough about that. But when he explains it to patients even in their nineties, they are “quite sophisticated in figuring things out.”

What would Medicare reform look like to Dr. Lazris? It would “put power in the hands of well informed patients who can control the course of their care.” In short, it would promote individualized care based on patient preference and provide medical interventions shown to be beneficial to the individuals being treated. It would be cost effective. It would give patients choices to maximize patient satisfaction, as well as enhance the doctor-patient relationship.

The bottom line, he writes, is that “the focus of care is to help patients live a better life.”

If your appetite for not-so-arcane medical information has been whetted, visit http://www.thennt.com/home-nnt. NNT stands for “number needed to treat” patients to result in a benefit to one person. A group of physicians have developed a framework and rating system to evaluate therapies based on their patient-important benefits and harms as well as a system to evaluate diagnostics by patient sign, symptom, lab test or study. A lot of this is technical, of course, but the colors used are not: Green indicates that the benefits outweigh the harms, while Yellow indicates that benefits are unclear. Red indicates no benefits and Black indicates that harms outweigh the benefits.

To learn more about over-treatment, visit the Lown Institute’s website. It also includes five questions to ask your physician about a recommended test, medication or procedure.

An RN’s View From the Front Lines of Care

When her children were young, Theresa Brown, RN, made a mid-career change: from English professor at Tufts University to nursing, and chose to specialize in medical oncology. We should all be glad she did, because she has chronicled her experiences – and by extension, illuminated some of the most pressing issues and challenges in our health care system – in two excellent books as well as in personal essays in The New York Times. And she does it with clarity, insight, humor and understated eloquence.TheShiftcover

Her voice is important because nursing truly is the heart of care for the ill. No other health professionals spend as much time providing hands-on care for the sick than nurses. Our health care system is increasingly complex, technology-laden and hyper-specialized. So the need for a humanistic perspective from those who are on the front lines has never been more pressing.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Theresa recently, following her book tour for The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives. The book focuses on a day in her life in the oncology ward of a Pittsburgh teaching hospital; she subsequently left that position and currently works as a hospice nurse, visiting people in their homes.

Just a couple of highlights of our conversation:

Theresa told me that she is comfortable in her current role as a home hospice nurse. In fact, she said, one reason she made this switch was that she always likes to learn new things and wanted particularly to learn about how the kind of care provided for patients at home might ultimately be transferred to the hospital setting. Care that offers more dignity and privacy for patients, such as letting patients sleep when they need to; or even wear their own clothes; and making it easier for family, friends and caregivers to visit any time and stay overnight if need be.

“It would be great to go back to a hospital and say, how can we make things better?” she said. “Creating a balance of comfort and quality care.” Even making the decision not to wake people in the middle of the night would be an enormous change, she pointed out.

We also talked about the ideal of the team approach in palliative and hospice care, where physicians and nurses work closely together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. (I’ve interviewed a number of such teams and, like proverbial married couples, they often do finish each other’s sentences.) In a hospital setting, Theresa noted, “communication between physicians and RNs often is not what it should be.”

She’d like to see more inter-professional training focusing on better communications so that “we could view each other as people and understand each other’s roles and responsibilities, and the pressures on each of us.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Theresa will keep learning – and educating us along the way – and that she’ll continue to make a difference in reaching the goal of improving patient care. In the meantime, you can order books, read her columns or join her mailing list at http://www.theresabrownrn.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Overlooked for 2015 Top Medical News

LastcomfortspaperWhat was the top medical news story in 2015? In November, Medscape (a medical website from WebMD) asked just that of its readers — primary care physicians, specialists and other health professionals – and more than 400 replied. Number one was: a major change in diagnostic codes, known as ICD-10. Not surprising, perhaps, as there are many more new codes for physicians to ponder, and probably much more administrative time required, as a result, to the chagrin of small practice owners. (http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/855309)

If we’re talking about developments that have the potential to make a big difference for patients in the coming years, though, I’d like to suggest at least two that ought to top the list.

My first “top news” story affects advance care planning. At long last, as of January 2016, you and your doctor will be able to discuss your goals, beliefs, values and fears should you become seriously ill – and Medicare will actually reimburse him or her for doing it. Granted, the reimbursement isn’t huge — $86 for a mere 30-minute discussion and $75 for a follow-up – but maybe it will be enough of an incentive to encourage more physicians to engage in these critical conversations.

These are difficult discussions to engage in, whether you’re talking with family and friends or your physicians. And too many physicians’ communication skills leave something to be desired. But the goal is to make sure that if you become very ill – particularly if you are not able to speak for yourself – your care will reflect your wishes and values.

My second “top news” story was the selection of hospices that will participate in the Medicare Care Choices pilot project, with implementation beginning in January 2016.

The Care Choices pilot will allow certain hospice patients with advanced cancers, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), congestive heart failure, or HIV/AIDS to elect hospice care without having to give up curative treatments.

             Originally, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was going to pick at least 30 rural and urban Medicare-certified and enrolled hospices to participate. It expected to enroll 30,000 beneficiaries over a three-year period. But because there was so much interest in the pilot, CMS expanded it to more than 140 Medicare-certified hospices and extended the duration of the project from three to five years. It expects to enroll as many as 150,000 eligible Medicare beneficiaries.

Why is this important? Because the idea of forgoing treatment aimed at cure – currently a requirement to enter into hospice care – has discouraged too many patients and their physicians from considering comfort care solely. Ideally, when the pilot is done, there will be useful evidence about whether concurrent care (curative and comfort) improves quality of life and results in fewer hospital readmissions and, possibly, lower Medicare costs.

In my “wishful thinking” category: Maybe in 2016 CMS will announce it is eliminating the six-month prognosis requirement for patients to enroll in hospice care. That would certainly get my vote for top medical news story next year!

 

 

 

 

What Palliative Care Should Look Like

PixabayholdinghandsSurprisingly, many people do not know what palliative care is despite its great strides in recent years. A Consumer Reports survey of more than 2,000 adults, for example, showed that 61 percent had never heard of palliative care.

As the population ages and the demand for palliative care grows, the ability to assess quality throughout the country and across care settings is increasingly important, as Dr. Joseph Rotella, chief medical officer of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine (AAHPM) and co-chair of its Measuring What Matters Clinical User Panel explained. And because there has been “no consistency regarding which measures are required by various groups, from accrediting organizations to payers,” AAHPM and the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association (HPNA) came up with “measuring what matters” quality indicators.

Moreover, he said, “there has not been enough focus on cultural sensitivity and social supports. The quality indicators represent a small set of measures to use right now in hospice and palliative care because they are meaningful to patients and have a real impact on them.”

These measures are not mandatory. But if you are seriously ill, or taking care of someone who is, this is the kind of care you should look for. The measures call for:

  1. A comprehensive assessment (physical, psychological, social, spiritual and functional) soon after admission.
  2. Screening for pain, shortness of breath, nausea and constipation during the admission visit.
  3. If you screen positive for at least moderate pain, you should receive treatment (medication or other) within 24 hours.
  4. Patients with advanced or life-threatening illness should be screened for shortness of breath and, if positive, to at least a moderate degree, have a plan to manage it.
  5. Engaging in a documented discussion regarding emotional needs.
  6. Hospice patients should have a documented discussion of spiritual concerns or preference not to discuss them.
  7. Documentation of the surrogate decision-maker’s name (such as the person who has health care power of attorney) and contact information, or absence of a surrogate.
  8. Documentation of your preferences for life-sustaining treatments.
  9. Vulnerable elders with documented preferences to withhold or withdraw life-sustaining treatments should have their preferences followed.
  10. You or your family or your caregivers should be asked about your experience of care using a relevant survey.

 

 

Living Well to the End

Last Comforts

old-people-616718_1280Did you know that November is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month? It is, thanks to the efforts of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. It’s a month devoted to broadening public awareness about the outstanding and much-needed care that hospice organizations provide for the very ill and their caregivers.

So I thought I’d do my part. I’m excited to announce the upcoming publication of my book, “Last Comforts: Notes From the Forefront of Late-Life Care.” Why did I write this book and start this blog?

I was drawn to hospice care because its caring and profoundly respectful philosophy and practice offers physical and emotional comfort, support and kindness to the dying and their families. My family experienced that first-hand with my mother’s last illness, a stark contrast five years after my father’s more conventional medicalized, nightmarish last months. So when I had an opportunity to sign on for hospice volunteer training at Holy Name Medical Center, I took it.

“Last Comforts” was born when one nagging question kept arising early in my journey as a hospice volunteer. Why were people coming into hospice care so late in the course of their illness? That question led to many others that rippled out beyond hospice care. Are there better alternatives to conventional skilled nursing home operations? How are physicians and nurses educated about advanced illness and end-of-life care? What are more effective ways of providing dementia care? What are the unique challenges of minority and LGBT people? What is the role of popular media in our death-denying culture? What has been the impact of public policy decisions about palliative and hospice care?

The book is part memoir of lessons learned throughout my experiences with patients and families as a hospice volunteer; part reporting about the remarkable pathfinders and programs in palliative and late-life care; and part call to action. I  encourage readers – particularly her fellow baby boomers — not only to make their wishes and goals clear to friends and family, but also to become advocates for better care in the broader community.

It’s no secret that care at the end of people’s lives right now is mostly fragmented, uncoordinated, often futile and unsustainable. But without question, it can be managed far better for those who are ill as well as for their caregivers. I’m hoping that “Last Comforts” – and this blog — will help shed light on how we can help make that happen.