Why hospice care should start sooner rather than later?

For decades, hospice and palliative care providers have struggled against this narrative, trying to reframe “nothing more we can do” as “living as well as you can for as long as you can” or “comfort care only” as “the best care possible.”

Too often, we all hear instead, “Palliative? You mean hospice, don’t you?” and “Hospice? That’s where they pump you full of morphine and you die.”

Worse, still, we hear this both from our patients and our health-care colleagues. Getting referrals remains one of the steepest challenges in the success of palliative care services. Remember, palliative care is person-centered care designed to anticipate, prevent and manage suffering for patients with serious illness, from the time of diagnosis onward, alongside curative treatment or without it. Hospice is a type of palliative care available to people with a life expectancy of six months or less, who are no longer seeking treatment. 

What makes a physician more or less likely to refer? A study in the AMA Journal of Ethics found that “Family and internal medicine practitioners were twice as likely to refer [to palliative care or hospice] frequently than were specialty and emergency medicine practitioners, and those who reported comfort with end-of-life care discussions were five times as likely to refer frequently than those who did not.”

Other studies (published in Palliative Medicine and Health Affairs) have identified physicians’ familiarity with palliative or hospice care — personal or through their patients — as key. Another critical factor, of course, is receptivity to difficult conversations and palliative approaches by the patients and families themselves.

These studies and many others recommend education, education, education — of providers and the public — as at least one part of the answer to more timely access to palliative care.

It is particularly gratifying, given all this, that the U.S. House of Representatives has recognized the importance of palliative care and hospice education, by passing the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (PCHETA). First introduced in 2012, this bill has slowly gained sponsors, momentum and support year after year, culminating in passage by the House and likely passage in the Senate before next term.

If enacted, PCHETA promises to make available $49 million a year for four years in grants and contracts to support palliative care and hospice education in pre-professional schools, residencies and fellowships, and continuing education settings, as well as creating a national public awareness campaign and directing additional NIH funds toward palliative care research. This could be a game-changer for palliative care education.