What You Need to Know About Palliative Care in 2021

The purpose and intent of palliative care is often misunderstood. In 1990 the World Health Organization (WHO) recognized palliative care as a distinct medical specialty dedicated to relieving the suffering and improving the quality of life for patients with life-limiting illnesses, chronic disease, or serious injury.

Despite its twenty-plus year history, many healthcare providers and workers still do not know that palliative and hospice care are not the same thing. While hospice care is part of palliative care, not all palliative care focuses solely on hospice. Palliative care may begin as early as the time of diagnosis of a chronic disease or illness, or at the same time treatment is started. Hospice care begins when the treatment focus shifts away from being curative to providing comfort measures as the disease progresses or the patient nears the end of life.

Both palliative and hospice care focus on relief of physical symptoms. And the goal of both is to help to improve the patient’s quality of life. But, hospice addresses the weeks and months at the end of life while palliative care focuses on reducing or eliminating pain and stress regardless of when hospice is needed.

The palliative care team takes a whole-person approach to the patient, including their emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. Conversations and goal plans are centered around what is meaningful to the patient and their family. The palliative care team collaborates with the social workers, chaplains, primary care and specialty care providers, including oncology.    

In 2020 the pandemic escalated the demand for palliative care services as patients suddenly, and unexpectedly, found themselves near or at an end-of-life stage. Many patients, with a variety of diseases and illnesses including cancer, were not able receive care in a hospital or cancer center.

This growing trend and need for service continues today and while many hospitals and cancer centers are adding more resources to the service, it’s not as robust or widespread as it needs to be.

Medicare and Medicaid patients have historically had hospice benefits, but do not have access to palliative care. Medicare Advantage, a private-sector health insurance option for Medicare patients does offer palliative care benefits at any stage of disease, but this is not widely known to the public or even an option for some.

On November 11, 2021, the American College of Surgeons (ACoS) announced their endorsement of the Expanding Access to Palliative Care Act. S. 2565 is legislation currently before the United States Senate that would direct the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to amend Title XI of the Social Security Act and provide testing of a community-based palliative care model and coordination of care for high-risk beneficiaries.

Accredited cancer patients should consider presenting this announcement to their Cancer Committee or Breast Program Leadership Committees (BPLC) and encourage their members to write to their senators in support of the legislation. The Bill was introduced to the Senate on 7/29/221 and is awaiting review and further action.

You can learn more about S.2565 and read the ACoS letter of endorsement by clicking on these links below:

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