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If you’re reading this, there’s a chance you or someone you know is facing a chronic condition. Whether it’s dementia, heart disease, or some type of cancer – such as mesothelioma – taking the next step to determine what treatment is available or appropriate is an important and often difficult decision. For many people battling a chronic disease, palliative care may be the most appropriate option for them to consider.
What Is Palliative Care?
Palliative care, which is also sometimes called comfort care or supportive care, is often confused with hospice care, but the two treatment approaches are different. Unlike hospice, which is typically provided to terminally ill patients who have decided to forego options to cure or treat their disease, palliative care is meant to relieve any symptoms felt by the disease. Palliative care can be given to patients who are terminally ill, as well as those who are seeking to cure the disease or fix the condition at the source of their pain and suffering.
Because mesothelioma has a poor prognosis and there is no cure for the disease, palliative care for mesothelioma patients often goes hand-in-hand with end-of-life care. However, palliative care can be offered to patients at any time following their diagnosis, and it works in tandem with the primary treatment that the patient is undergoing. The term “palliative care” should not scare anyone who wants to fight the disease, or who is hoping for their cancer to go into remission.
Ultimately, regardless of what specific disease or condition you have, palliative care is about making the patient more comfortable. It can be as simple as aspirin to help relieve minor aches, to more complex and involved forms of medical treatment. Even standard mesothelioma therapies like surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation can be considered palliative, if their primary purpose is to relieve pain and discomfort, rather than attempting to cure the disease outright.
Palliative Care Benefits
There are several benefits attached to palliative care, including:
- Access to medical staff who specialize in pain management and comfort.
- Holistic approaches that include ministering to mental and spiritual needs, as well as physical.
- The prevention of complications before they happen.
- Overall improvement of the quality of life.
Palliative Care Specialists
Those undergoing palliative care will have access to doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who make up an interdisciplinary team focused specifically on addressing pain and discomfort. These teams will honor the privacy and choices made by the patient and their family, and can even act as a liaison between patients and family members to communicate the patient’s decisions.
Palliative care teams are also capable of reducing the stress that comes with battling a chronic illness while improving a person’s quality of life. This allows the primary treating physician to remain focused on treating the central disease or condition. For many patients, palliative specialists also can walk them and their families through the complexities of the healthcare system.
Mental and Spiritual Care
Alongside physical symptoms of a life-threatening illness, more personal issues that might arise, including questions regarding a patient’s faith, their fears for the future, and navigating legal or financial issues. Many of these types of issues come up especially with terminal illnesses, such as mesothelioma. Patients will often have a broad range of questions and doubts that they want to discuss with someone.
Palliative care is capable of addressing these types of questions through access to therapists and counselors. Whatever the patient’s personal beliefs, they will be able to talk with someone who can provide guidance for their particular concerns. Studies have shown that addressing these types of issues not only improves the mental and spiritual distress that a person might be feeling, but also can lead to improvements in physical health.
Preventing Future Complications
There is a growing body of evidence that shows that the earlier patients start to receive palliative care, the better their outcomes are overall. A study published in 2013 in the journal Therapeutic Advances in Medical Oncology provides an overview of this evidence, concluding, “For many patients with advanced cancer, it is likely that early involvement of palliative care will improve outcomes, including QOL, and potentially survival.”
One of the big reasons that palliative care can help early on is that it addresses pain and discomfort when they are still relatively low-key. Rather than waiting for them to become major problems that could lead to further deleterious effects, palliative care relieves pain and side-effect issue as they come up. Remember the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Palliative care, especially when introduced early into the treatment plan, is just like that.
Higher Quality of Life
If the specific benefits of palliative care are the management of pain and discomfort, the broad benefit is an overall improvement in the patient’s quality of life. This is true for both patients who are expecting to survive for years to come, as well as those who have been given only a short time to live.
That’s not to say that palliative care will help the patient always feel great. Deadly cancers like mesothelioma and other life-threatening illnesses or chronic diseases will often induce some level of pain, discomfort, and mental or spiritual anguish, regardless of what measures are taken. Nonetheless, palliative care can help make patients feel better – often much better – than they would have otherwise, which can give them leave to enjoy activities and spending quality time with family that they might not otherwise have.
Increasing the Reach of Palliative Care Efforts
Palliative care has found an important niche to fill in the healthcare system, but unfortunately the number of nurses and practitioners is lagging far behind in both number of people and research funding.
To help remedy the situation, in 2016 lawmakers introduced the “Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act.” The bill boasts strong bipartisan support and more than 230 co-sponsors, and states that the need for palliative care physicians is only going to grow as the country’s population continues aging. According to the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine’s Workforce Task Force, there is currently a need to train about 6,000 more physicians to meet the current need. As of now, even at maximum capacity, there would only be about 5,300 trained and certified people to fill the demand over the next two decades.
Unfortunately, the bill was not passed before Congress adjourned at the end of last year. It remains to be seen whether a similar bill will be introduced with the new session of Congress. Hopefully, given the bipartisan support behind the previous version of the bill, a new bill can be introduced and passed to support these much-needed improvements to the current medical system.
At the state level, the Center to Advance Palliative Care’s State-by-State Report Card presented an uptick in the number of hospitals nationwide with palliative care teams, rising from 53 percent in 2008 to 67 percent in 2015. That said, the report also found that certain regions of the United States are more likely to have palliative care availability than others. For example, those living in the northeast and along the West Coast are more likely to have access to palliative services compared to those living in the Deep South in states like Alabama or Mississippi.
While there is still more work to do, the good news is that palliative care is on an upward trend as more doctors and nurses recognize the benefits of a more well-rounded approach to healthcare. The increase in interest is coming at an opportune time as well, as the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine’s Workforce Task Force is estimating 70 million new beneficiaries will enter Medicare in the next 20 years. Continuing to encourage both private and public efforts toward increasing the availability of palliative care can only help our aging population in the long run.