Patients Turn to Palliative Care for Relief from Serious Illness: The Wall Street Journal

Patients Turn to Palliative Care for Relief from Serious Illness: The Wall Street Journal

Patients with serious illnesses need medical treatments to survive. But they are increasingly taking advantage of the specialty known as palliative care, which offers day-to-day relief from symptoms as well as stress and lifestyle management.

Though often regarded as only for older patients with terminal illness before they enter hospice programs at the end of life, palliative care is increasingly being offered to patients of any age with a range of chronic illnesses such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s. It may be provided at the same time as curative medical regimens to help patients tolerate side effects of disease and treatment, and carry on with everyday life.

“Most people who need palliative care are in fact not dying, but have one or more chronic diseases which they may live with for many years,” says Diane E. Meier, director of the nonprofit Center to Advance Palliative Care and a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. For a 24-year-old with acute leukemia, there is a 70% chance of survival, Dr. Meier says, “but the treatment is physically devastating, and that suffering is remediable with palliative care.”

The number of palliative-care programs has more than tripled over the past decade. Now, two-thirds of hospitals with 50 beds or more and 80% of those with 250 beds or more have programs, according to Dr. Meier’s center, which helps consumers locate programs. Many hospitals are creating outpatient clinics to help patients with preventable crises, such as severe shortness of breath, remain at home and avoid trips to the ER and hospitalizations. Studies show not only can palliative care improve quality of life but also it can actually extend life for some patients.

Presbyterian Healthcare Services in Albuquerque, N.M., which includes eight hospitals, a health plan, and a physician group, launched palliative-care outpatient clinics in 2012 and now offers them at five primary-care offices and two oncology offices. “We have cancer patients who are not certain this will be the end of their life, and may be stable, so we walk the walk with them for a long time” says Dr. Nancy Guinn, medical director of Presbyterian Healthcare at Home.

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Photo: Amy Berman at the Great Wall of China. Ms. Berman says palliative care has helped her live with pain and side effects of treatment for her breast cancer. SUSAN BRELUS