Columns for The Lufkin News

Palliative Care: Something We All Want

Posted Oct 08, 2017 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

As a hospice physician – in addition to my role as a doctor who treats cancer – much of my focus is on comfort care. Part of my motivation to study medicine stems from my childhood concept of who a physician was and should be: a healer and comforter. The physician of yesteryear came to the bedside to care for and comfort the sick (and yes, the dying). I love that the Latin root for comforter is confortare, meaning, “to strengthen much.” In Christianity, the Holy Spirit is also called the Comforter.

Frankly, all physicians should practice comfort care. We know we aren’t to harm our patients. That obligation not to inflict harm intentionally is the ethical principle of nonmaleficence. It is summed up in the Latin phrase Primum non nocere – First, do no harm. The Hippocratic Oath states, in part, “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing.” That oath – to help the sick – expresses our obligation to do good (the ethical principle of beneficence). Though the actual oath used in various medical schools has changed over time, the overarching mandate to help the sick – and, at a minimum, not to harm them – is universal.

What does it mean to help the sick? That seems, on the surface, like an obvious question. “To cure, of course!” we would say in the 21st century. But curing disease is a quite modern concept. For most of medical history, comfort care was the primary goal. Modern technology and the emphasis on cure got us advanced cardiac care, open heart surgery, amazing innovations in cancer treatment, and so much more. But by 1980, most people died in the hospital. This was rare just a generation or two prior to that, when nearly everyone died at home (or on the battlefield). 

Since 1980, the number of people dying in the hospital has declined somewhat, thanks in part to better end of life care (including hospice care). However, 7 out of 10 Americans still die in a hospital, nursing home or long-term care facility when 7 out of 10 of us say we want to die at home (only 25% of Americans actually do die at home). Utilization of hospice care at the end of life is still woefully low.

But, what about those in the hospital who aren’t expected to die, who want a better, more “comfortable” hospital care experience overall? “Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always,” is a wonderful mantra attributed to the 19th century tuberculosis physician Dr. Edward Trudeau. This phrase sums up a newer movement in medicine called palliative care. 

Palliative care focuses on preventing and relieving suffering and on supporting the best possible quality of life for patients and their families facing any serious illness. To palliate means to relieve – literally, to cloak – with the focus being on symptoms. Symptom management obviously should not be limited to end of life care.

As an example, for an ICU patient suffering from an acute exacerbation of lung disease, probably on a ventilator for a short period of time (but expected to recover), the physician historically has been paying attention to oxygen and carbon dioxide measurements, volumes of air going in and out, the acidity of the blood, and other “numbers” that paint a picture of how the patient is doing. But not how the patient or family is feeling. Shortness of breath? Anxiety? Nausea? Pain? Dealing with prognosis and potential end-of-life decision-making? Social and spiritual support? These are issues that might benefit from a palliative care consult.

Every hospitalization (whether ICU or not) has the potential for needing some degree of palliative, or comfort, care in addition to and alongside the acute medical needs that precipitated the admission in the first place. Often, the treating physician can and should address these needs. Quality metrics such as patient satisfaction, length of stay, and even cost of hospitalization are improved with good symptom management.

And, believe it or not, sometimes patients live longer with good comfort care! In my field of oncology, randomized trials have shown improved quality of life and even improved survival with early use of palliative care. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends the integration of palliative care with conventional oncology treatment, and the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) has urged early palliative care referral when cure is not expected, even if death is not imminent and treatment still is ongoing.

CHI St. Luke’s Health Memorial in Lufkin will be starting a new palliative care consult service later this fall. A team consisting of a physician, nurse, and social worker all certified in palliative care will be available to consult with and advise physicians on any patient with difficult to manage symptoms, regardless of whether or not the patient has a terminal prognosis.

As we learn more about palliative care, we remember the Golden Rule: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12, NIV).” 

Comfort always.

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Meet Our Team

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

Radiation Oncologist

Madelene Collier, RN, OCN

Madelene Collier, RN, OCN

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Jewel Randle, RT (R)(T)

Jewel Randle, RT (R)(T)

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Aimee Salas, RT (T)

Aimee Salas, RT (T)

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Josh Yarbrough, RT (R)(CT)(T)

Josh Yarbrough, RT (R)(CT)(T)

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Julie McClain, RT (R)(T)

Julie McClain, RT (R)(T)

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Linda Miller, MS

Linda Miller, MS

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Evelyn Leach

Evelyn Leach

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