Providing Effective Palliative Care in the Era of Value


Although effective palliative care has always been a must-have for patients and caregivers facing serious illness, it hasn’t always been readily available. With the emergence of value-based healthcare models—and their potent incentives to reduce avoidable readmissions—there is renewed hope that such care will be accessible to those who need it.

Palliative and end-of-life care have long been promoted as core skills for hospitalists. The topic has regularly been included at SHM annual meetings and other prominent hospital medicine conferences, in the American Board of Internal Medicine blueprint for recognition of focused practice in hospital medicine, and in a number of influential references for hospitalists. Still, as I look at hospitalist programs around the country, there is a clear need to improve hospitalists’ delivery of palliative and end-of-life care.

Care of patients with chronic illness in their last two years of life accounts for a third of all Medicare spending.1 As hospitalists, we encounter many of these patients as they are hospitalized—and often re-hospitalized. Palliative care, which can improve quality of life and decrease costs for patients while leading to increased satisfaction and better outcomes for caregivers, can help alleviate unneeded and unwanted aggressive interventions like hospitalization.2,3

In its 2014 report, Dying in America, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) identified several areas for improvement, including better advance care planning and payment systems supporting high quality end-of-life care.4 As I write this column in mid 2016, there are two notable achievements since the IOM report: two E&M codes for advance care planning and a substantial and growing number of hospitalist patients in alternative payment models like bundled payments or ACOs.5 I believe we are entering a time when the availability of good palliative care will be accelerated due to broader forces in healthcare that for the first time align incentives between patients’ wishes and how care is paid for.

Palliative Care Skills for Hospitalists

The following are key actions for physicians in addressing palliative care for the hospitalized patient. At the risk of oversimplifying the discipline, I offer a few key actions for hospitalists to keep in mind.

Identify patients who would benefit from palliative care. The surprise question—“Would I be surprised if this patient died in the next year?”—has the ability to predict which patients would benefit from palliative care. In one observation from a group of patients with cancer, a “no” answer identified 60% of patients who died within a year.6 The surprise question has previously been shown to be predictive in other cancer and non-cancer populations.7,8

Weisman and Meier suggest using the following in a checklist at the time of hospital admission as “primary criteria to screen for unmet palliative care needs”:9

  • The surprise question
  • Frequent admissions
  • Admission prompted by difficult-to-control physical or psychological symptoms
  • Complex care requirements
  • Decline in function, feeding intolerance, or unintended decline in weight

Hold a “goals of care” meeting. A notable step forward for supporting conversations between physicians and patients occurred on Jan. 1, when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the Advance Care Planning E&M codes. These are CPT codes 99497 and 99498. They can be used on the same day as other E&M codes and cover discussions regarding advance care planning issues including discussing advance directives, appointing a healthcare proxy or durable power of attorney, discussing a living will, or addressing orders for life-sustaining treatment like the role of hydration or future hospitalizations. (For more information on how to use them, visit the CMS website and search for the FAQ.)

What should hospitalists concentrate on when having “goals of care” conversations with patients and caregivers? Ariadne Labs, a Harvard-affiliated health innovation group, offers the following as elements of a serious illness conversation:10

  • Patients’ understanding of their illness
  • Patients’ preferences for information and for family involvement
  • Personal life goals, fears, and anxieties
  • Trade-offs they are willing to accept

For hospitalists, an important area to pay particular attention to is the role of future hospitalizations in patients’ wishes for care, as some patients, if offered appropriate symptom control, would prefer to remain at home.

Two other crucial elements of inpatient palliative care—offer psychosocial support and symptom relief and hand off patient to effective post-hospital palliative care—are outside the scope of this article. However, they should be kept in mind and, of course, applied.

Understand the role of the palliative care consultation. Busy hospitalists might reasonably think, “I simply don’t have time to address palliative care in patients who aren’t likely to die during this hospitalization or soon after.” The palliative care consult service, if available, should be accessed when patients are identified as palliative care candidates but the primary hospitalist does not have the time or resources—including specialized knowledge in some cases—to deliver adequate palliative care. Palliative care specialists can also help bridge the gap between inpatient and outpatient palliative care resources.

In sum, the move to value-based payment models and the new advance care planning E&M codes provide a renewed focus—with more aligned incentives—and the opportunity to provide good palliative care to all who need it.

For hospitalists, identifying those who would benefit from palliative care and working with the healthcare team to ensure the care is delivered are at the heart of our professional mission. TH


  1. End-of-life care. The Darmouth Atlas of Health Care website. Accessed June 23, 2016.
  2. Gade G, Venohr I, Conner D, et al. Impact of an inpatient palliative care team: a randomized control trial. J Palliat Med. 2008;11(2):180-190.
  3. Morrison RS, Penrod JD, Cassel JB, et al. Cost savings associated with US hospital palliative care consultation programs. Arch Int Med. 2008;168(16):1783-1790.
  4. Institute of Medicine. Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences near the End of Life. 2014.
  5. BPCI Model 2: Retrospective acute & post acute care episode. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services website. Accessed June 24, 2016.
  6. Vick JB, Pertsch N, Hutchings M, et al. The utility of the surprise question in identifying patients most at risk of death. J Clin Oncol. 2015;33(suppl):8.
  7. Moss AH, Ganjoo J, Sharma S, et al. Utility of the “surprise” question to identify dialysis patients with high mortality. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2008;3:1379-1384.
  8. Moss AH, Lunney JR, Culp S, et al. Prognostic significance of the “surprise” question in cancer patients. J Palliat Med. 2010;13(7):837-840.
  9. Weissman D, Meier C. Identifying patients in need of a palliative care assessment in the hospital setting: a consensus report from the Center to Advance Palliative Care. J Palliat Med. 2011;14(1):17-23.
  10. Serious illness care resources. Ariadne Labs website. Accessed June 24, 2016.

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