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Palliative Consult


Hospital-based palliative care programs are gaining traction in the United States as studies show their efficacy in decreasing length of stay and improved quality of patient care.1,2 According to the American Hospital Association, 22% of all U.S. hospitals now have such programs.3 These programs—with their emphasis on coordinated, team-delivered care and communication—seem tailor-made for the expertise of hospitalists who are increasingly taking the lead to establish them at their institutions.

Through the SHM Web site ( and the Center to Advance Palliative Care ( ample resources exist for developing program infrastructure and acquiring on-site training (see

There are unwritten protocols, however, that can make or break a palliative care service. Hospitalists involved with palliative care often find themselves relating to oncologists because many patients who have palliative care needs are undergoing inpatient curative treatments (such as brachytherapy) or are actively dying. Palliative care experts interviewed for this article agreed that in order to encourage referrals from their oncology colleagues, hospitalists must be attentive to oncologists’ concerns and to consultation etiquette.

“Palliative care has been something that oncologists traditionally think they do pretty well,” says David H. Lawson, MD, section chief, Medical Oncology at Emory Clinic. “I think there will be a lot of variability between oncologists about what they see as their province and what they see as open for someone else.”

The “key message” for a hospitalist when asked to do a palliative care consult is to remember that the client of a consultation service is the referring physician.

—Diane E. Meier, MD

Assessing Oncologists’ Needs

During the organizational phase of a hospital-based palliative care service, it is advisable to meet with oncologists one-on-one, believes Charles F. von Gunten, MD, PhD, medical director of the Palliative Care Consultation Service at the University of California, San Diego, and director of the Center for Palliative Studies at San Diego Hospice and Palliative Care. “All consult services are fundamentally about providing advice to the managing physician when requested, about what is requested, and nothing else.”

He recommends that hospitalists involved in development of a hospital-based palliative care service find out how key oncologists at their hospital perceive the needs in the area of palliative care. “This may not match what the hospitalist thinks the oncologist needs, but that’s immaterial,” he cautions.

This advice squares with that of Steve Pantilat, MD, immediate past-president of SHM, and his team at the University of California, San Francisco. The palliative care service at UCSF is one of six Palliative Care Leadership Centers nationwide, so designated during an initiative launched two years ago by the Center to Advance Palliative Care. (The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation underwrites training activities at the six centers.) The issue in establishing palliative care services, says Dr. Pantilat, is “figuring out what would attract oncologists about such a program. What issues are most salient to them? Instead of saying, ‘I have a new service; would you please use it?’ You have to come in and say, ‘We’re thinking of starting this new service; how can we be of help to you?’ ”

Dr. Lawson agrees with Dr. von Gunten and Dr. Pantilat that hospitalists must develop communication with oncologists early during the start-up phase of a palliative care service. Hospitalists who offer palliative care services should also take time to familiarize themselves with patients’ treatment plans.

“I think there is going to be a learning curve for palliative care specialists,” says Dr. Lawson. “Part of that learning is to get some sense of how oncologists make decisions about whether to give chemo[therapy] or not. Oftentimes, there are pressures that might not be obvious.”

For instance, it may appear to a palliative care consultant that a certain patient should not undergo chemotherapy, but in fact the patient or the family may demand it.

Stephanie Grossman, MD, assistant professor of medicine and co-director of the Palliative Care Program for Emory University Hospital and Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta, says the majority of consults she does are with oncology patients. She has found that attending Monday morning sign-out meetings with Emory oncologists has not only increased referrals to the palliative care service, but has added to her understanding of oncologists’ decision-making processes.

“When I go to weekly meetings, I hear the full spectrum of what they are doing. I see how oncologists work and how they decide about treatments,” she says. “It’s been a really good experience because I never would have seen this from the hospitalist viewpoint.”

Emory’s palliative care program was launched in November 2005 and has grown so quickly that they already need additional staff.

Consult Etiquette for Palliative Care Services

Consultation etiquette defines the relationship between the primary physician and the consultant. “Having a clear primary relationship with one physician who’s the quarterback is clearly in the best interest of the patient,” emphasizes Dr. Meier of the Center to Advance Palliative Care. Those who honor the following unwritten rules will establish a more collegial relationship with the referring physicians and be more likely to be called on a regular basis.

  1. Respond quickly to a request for a consultation.
  2. Call the referring physician (or service) to confirm you have received the request and to clarify what the person wants you to do.
  3. See the patient, but do not give advice to the patient. Be clear that you are there to help the patient’s main physician provide care. Spend time and attention to what the referring physician asked you to address. Do not say anything to the patient that would create a division between the patient and his or her primary physician.
  4. Call the referring source after you have seen the patient—and before you write anything in the chart. If you see a need to furnish more services, ask the referring source for permission before you proceed.
  5. Write a note in the medical record summarizing why you were asked to see the patient, your pertinent findings, your recommendations (that you have already negotiated with the attending physician), and your plans. Finish the note graciously thanking them for asking you to see their patient. Start or finish your note with phrasing such as, “Thank you so much for asking me to participate in the care of this interesting patient.”—GH

Source: Charles F. von Gunten, MD, PhD, medical director, Palliative Care Consultation Service, UCSD

The Primary Client

The “key message” for a hospitalist when asked to do a palliative care consult is to remember that the client of a consultation service is the referring physician, points out geriatrician Diane E. Meier, MD, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care and the director of the Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “As a geriatrician, if I call in an infectious disease consultant, I’m calling that physician to help me make decisions about my patient—not for that person to take over the care of my patient or to undermine my relationship to that patient. This is basic consultation etiquette, but physicians are often not taught in medical school or residency the difference between a primary care responsibility and a consultation responsibility.”

“The biggest mistake that people make in putting together palliative care services,” concurs Dr. von Gunten, “is thinking that the patient is the client. That isn’t true. It is the person requesting the consultation—meaning, the referring physician or the managing service. The patient is the secondary beneficiary.

“The language we use—‘my patient’—is fundamental to the practice of American medicine,” explains Dr. von Gunten. You have to respect that. If you go to someone’s home, you don’t redecorate it because you don’t like their taste. You do not comment on their choice of draperies or their choice of food. The same applies to medical consultations.” (See “Consult Etiquette for Palliative Care Services,” p. 33.)

Oncologists generally feel “very possessive” about their patients, adds Dr. von Gunten. Even though oncologists are technically also consultants (to the patient’s primary care physician), the pattern in American medicine is that oncologists treating patients acquire the status of a primary care physician. “So,” he says, “you treat them with that kind of respect, which means that you ask permission before you do things, and you don’t disparage what they are doing—either to their faces or to their patients or to other bystanders like nurses.”

Dr. Lawson agrees that oncologists often have a strong personal bond with their patients. “These personal feelings are often reciprocated by the patients and families,” he says. “Accepting another person [the hospitalist as palliative care consultant] into the equation can be difficult at times, even more so while the patient is still in the hospital and the oncologist is still around.”

The palliative care program at Emory is consult-driven. “The doctor has to agree to us getting involved, so I don’t get into territorial issues,” says Dr. Grossman. “When I do get involved with patients, the oncologists welcome me taking care of them and realize the benefit of what I’m doing. They see that my approach is collaborative.”

Dr. Grossman has been able to offer services to oncologists whose patients are receiving chemotherapy and experiencing significant symptoms, such as pain. When hospitalists on the hospital medicine service consult her about cancer patients, she calls the primary oncologist to familiarize herself with the patient’s background and to check if other treatments are available.

Strengths of Hospitalists

Palliative care should be distinguished from hospice or end-of-life care, although it can be concurrent. Palliative care needs—ranging from symptom management to alleviating psychological suffering—can exist at any point along the cancer care trajectory, notes Dr. von Gunten, who was a co-developer with Dr. Pantilat and others of the California Hospital Initiative in Palliative Services program to assist hospitals to develop palliative services.4

Hospitalists, says Dr. von Gunten, already possess some of the baseline skills needed to deliver palliative care: They’re based in the hospital and so have the opportunity to interact with patients and their families; they are experienced in hospital-based management of patients; they are experienced in teamwork with other providers also based in the hospital. The ability to be available to patients and physicians 24/7 is a real advantage in symptom management, says Dr. Lawson.

Because hospitalists by definition care for people who are not their primary care patients, the sophistication and sensitivity about working with one’s colleagues “is already inculcated,” observes Dr. Meier. In addition, “hospitalists understand that their responsibility to and relationship with the patient is only one piece of being a good doctor. Ensuring good care for a patient means very high level and high intensity communications with everyone involved in that patient’s care: all the other specialists, the primary care physician, and the floor team—the social workers, nurses, certified nursing assistants, dietary staff, and rehab and physiatry staff. Unless everyone is reading from the same page, the patient’s care will not be good. Very often, it’s the hospitalist or palliative care consultant who is at the center of the wheel, making sure that all the spokes are getting the same message,” she says.

Busy oncologists may call upon Dr. Grossman’s service to conduct family meetings about care plans. “Patients are very loyal to their oncologists, and they want their oncologists to be supportive of their decisions,” she notes. “I always explain to patients that my consultation was requested or supported by their oncologist. I am not there to cause more barriers; I’m there to have everybody on board and to understand where the patient is. We call everybody in—the social worker, the nurse, chaplaincy staff—because our approach is interdisciplinary and these are the essential members of our team.”

Dr. Grossman believes that hospitalists’ training in teamwork and communications are key to providing a good experience for oncology patients and their families. She is board certified in palliative care, which allows her to bring additional expertise to symptom support, including situations where she can help the dying process be as peaceful as possible—for both patient and family.

The issues important in palliative care—availability to patients, families, and referring physicians, ability to work in teams, and quality of care—dovetail with the primary goals of hospital medicine. Hospitalists’ palliative care services can thrive when they forge strong foundational relationships with their referring colleagues. TH

Gretchen Henkel regularly contributes to The Hospitalist.


  1. Selwyn PA, Rivard M, Kappell D, et al. Palliative care for AIDS at a large urban teaching hospital: program description and preliminary outcomes. J Palliat Med. 2003 Jun;6(3):461-474.
  2. Ryan A, Carter J, Lucas J, Berger J. You need not make the journey alone: overcoming impediments to providing palliative care in a public urban teaching hospital. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 2002 May-June;19(3):171-180.
  3. The Case for Hospital-Based Palliative Care, published by the Center to Advance Palliative Care. Available online at: Last accessed March 22, 2006.
  4. Pantilat SZ, Rabow MW, Citko J, et al. Evaluating the California Hospital Initiative in Palliative Services. Arch Intern Med. 2006 Jan 23;166(2):227-230.

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