Health Break | Published February 6, 2009 | Written by Cindy Drenning, MSN, CRNP

Palliative Care Services Help Patients Cope with Serious Illness

Palliative care consultation services, a growing medical specialty, is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients coping with a serious illness or a chronic, life-limiting condition including Alzheimer's, advanced cardiac and respiratory diseases, or any cancer-related illness. A primary focus of palliative care is to advance the support for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs for both the hospitalized patient and his or her family.

Palliative care places a stronger emphasis on reducing the severity of disease symptoms, pain and discomfort rather than providing a cure. Partnering with the patient's primary physician, palliative care specialists, deliver and/or coordinate the care while the patient receives any desired treatment, at all stages of an illness.

According to the World Health Organization, palliative care:

  • provides relief from pain and other distressing symptoms;
  • integrates the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of patient care;
  • offers a support system to help the family cope during the patients illness;
  • uses a team approach to address the needs of patients and families, including grief counseling and support;
  • enhances quality of life, and can positively influence the course of illness; and
  • can be coupled effectively with other therapies that are intended to prolong life, such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Palliative Care is in greater demand because it places a strong emphasis on quality of care by improving communication and enhancing support for patients and families as they navigate the healthcare system and its resources. In 2008 alone, the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) reported that nearly 90 million Americans were living with a serious or life-threatening illness, which is expected to more than double over the next 25 years with the aging of the baby boomers. This care may be provided at any time during a patient's illness and at the same time as life-prolonging treatments or therapies.

Many patients and caregivers experience the helpless feeling that arises when facing a life-limiting illness or chronic illness. Regardless of the diagnosis, the feeling is usually, I wish there were something more we could do. With palliative care, there is something more. Often there are difficult decisions regarding the course of care. These decisions may focus on quality versus quantity of life, and require careful communication and consideration. Ultimately, the patient has the ability to determine what they mean by quality of life.

Studies conducted by CAPC have also shown that palliative care teams help patients:

  • to better identify plan of care goals;
  • to develop a greater understanding of disease and treatment options;
  • to improve communication among health care providers and resources; and
  • by addressing the emotional needs of caregivers and improving the ability of families to feel confident in caring for patients with serious illness.

Many hospitals have established palliative care programs. Over half of the nation's hospitals have a palliative care service. In Pennsylvania, 54 percent of hospitals have instituted a palliative care program. Regionally, Home Nursing Agency has partnered with Altoona Regional Health System, UPMC Bedford, and most recently Mount Nittany Medical Center to provide palliative care consultation. At Mount Nittany Medical Center, the palliative care coordinator collaborates with Tom Malinich, MD, to provide care. For more information on palliative care at the Medical Center, call 234.6153.

Cindy Drenning, MSN, CRNP is the palliative care coordinator at Mount Nittany Medical Center.