For some palliative care professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in viral hot spots like New York City, represents a “moment” that could lead to greater awareness of what this service offers to seriously ill patients in a crisis.
They say it has provided an opportunity to show what palliative care teams can contribute to the difficult circumstances of patients with severe symptoms, isolated and alone in quarantined hospitals, with poor survival rates, perhaps sedated for extended stays on scarce ventilators – and for their family members, who are able to visit them only virtually via telephone or tablet.
But it has also highlighted gaps – including insufficient staffing for some palliative care teams. Hospitalists and other clinicians in the hospital need to learn the basics of primary palliative care, such as how to communicate bad news, initiate goals of care conversations, and address common symptoms of serious illness, such as pain. That way, they could shoulder more of the demand for this kind of care when palliative care specialists are in short supply.
Hospitalists, some of whom also have pursued a specialization in palliative care, have played key roles in clarifying and redefining the new role for palliative care, whom it is meant for, and who should provide it. Central to this new role is the greater use of telemedicine – for talking to hospitalized patients without increasing viral exposure, for linking up with family members who can’t visit their loved ones in the hospital, and for helping frontline hospital staff who need a palliative care consultation – or just a chance to debrief on what they are seeing.
A pandemic wake-up call
Elizabeth Gundersen, MD, FHM, FAAHPM, director of the hospice and palliative medicine fellowship program at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) in Boca Raton, practiced hospital medicine for 10 years before pursuing a fellowship in hospice and palliative medicine and working as an academic palliative medicine physician. She calls the pandemic a wake-up call for gaps in care and all the things that weren’t working well in the health care system.
“Now we are seeing more clearly what’s lacking – or broken – and what we will carry forward from this experience into the post-COVID world,” she said. Some hospitalists do palliative care very well, and others don’t feel as comfortable in having these difficult conversations with patients. But in the uncertain course of the virus they get thrust into it.
Although FAU’s associated hospitals were not as inundated with COVID-19 patients in the early weeks of the pandemic as were other regions, the volume of other patients plummeted, Dr. Gundersen said, adding that “there’s still been incredible intensity and worry about the virus. For me, the basic role of palliative care hasn’t changed, and the phrase I have always used when introducing myself – ‘we’re an extra layer of support for the patient and family’ – still holds true,” she said.
“I try to make it clear to people that palliative care is not synonymous with end-of-life care. We don’t want people to think that a palliative care referral implies imminent death. The goal is not to get more people to have a do not attempt resuscitation (DNAR) order, but to determine the patient and family’s treatment goals and whether a DNAR order fits those goals.”