The tough conversations
Dr. Gundersen is cochair of SHM’s Palliative Care Special Interest Group, along with Rab Razzak, MD, clinical director of palliative medicine at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, one of the hospitals affiliated with Case Western University in Cleveland. (Connect with them on Twitter:and .)
Dr. Razzak also transitioned from hospital medicine to palliative medicine 10 years ago. “As a hospitalist, I enjoyed the tough conversations and bringing the human element into my health care interactions,” he explained. “To me, palliative care is a philosophy of care that puts the person we call the patient at the center of the interaction, while we try to figure out how to best care for them as a person.”
When the pandemic hit, University Hospitals made 20 ICU beds available for COVID-19 patients, Dr. Razzak said. This unit has since been full but not overflowing, while overall hospital census went down. The palliative care team at the hospital includes four inpatient doctors, nurse practitioners, and a chaplain, as well as an outpatient team primarily focused on oncology.
“In some settings, palliative care has been at the forefront of difficult conversations, when things aren’t going well for the patient and there’s much uncertainty,” Dr. Razzak said. The interface between hospital medicine and palliative care can be complementary, he added. “We talk about primary palliative care, which we want every discipline to be able to do – lead meaningful conversations, help manage symptoms.”
The take-home message for hospitalists, he said, is to get training in how to have these discussions, using such resources as VitalTalk (, a nonprofit organization that disseminates education in communication skills for difficult conversations, and the Center to Advance Palliative Care ( at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Once you’ve mastered the conversation, it will get easier. But ask for help when you need it, and learn how to know when you need it.”
Dr. Gundersen added that hospital medicine groups and palliative care teams could reach out to each other and talk about what they did in the crisis and how they can work together in the future. She recommends frequent ongoing support and collaboration that could range from formal conferences or training sessions to informal team interactions, perhaps with sandwiches in the doctor’s lounge – provided that there’s room for social distancing. She has recently started giving talks in the community and grand rounds presentations in hospitals about palliative care.
Other approaches and applications
In New York City, the initial epicenter for the pandemic in the United States, the adult palliative care service of Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) experienced a sevenfold increase in consultation requests at the apex of the crisis, said its director, Craig Blinderman, MD. That demand was impossible to meet with existing staff. So Dr. Blinderman and colleagues established a virtual consultation model, recruiting and deploying volunteer out-of-state palliative care specialists to staff it.
An eight-bed palliative care unit was opened at CUMC for COVID-19 patients whose surrogates had opted not to initiate or continue intubation or life-sustaining treatments. This helped to relieve some of the pressures on the ICUs while making it possible for in-person visits to the hospice unit by families – in full PPE. Palliative care staff were embedded in various units in the hospital.
A palliative care response team composed of a hospice and palliative medicine fellow and four psychiatry residents or fellows, based in the emergency department and with supervision from the palliative care team, provided time-critical goals of care conversations with families using telemedicine – and a forum for listening to their suffering. Dr. Blinderman and colleagues also have found time to write up their experience for medical journals.1,2
There’s no reason to think that hospitalists, with a little basic training, couldn’t be having these same goals of care conversations, Dr. Blinderman said. “But the fact that hospitalists, at the pandemic’s peak, along with ICU doctors, were seeing an unprecedented magnitude of dying on a daily basis generated a lot of moral distress for them.”
Palliative care professionals, because they engage with these issues in a different way, may be somewhat better equipped to deal with the sheer emotional demands when so many are dying, as at the peak of the surge in New York. “We don’t see dying as a failure on our part but an opportunity to relieve suffering,” Dr. Blinderman said. And the palliative care field also emphasizes the importance of self-care for its practitioners.
“How do we meet the incredible palliative care needs in the epicenter of a pandemic? That question also applies to other kinds of crises we could imagine, for example, climate-related disasters,” Dr. Blinderman said. “What lessons have we learned about the value of palliative care and how to start incorporating it more integrally into the delivery of hospital care? Here we showed that we could work collaboratively with our colleagues at other major medical centers, bringing together their expertise to help us when we didn’t have the bandwidth to meet the demand,” he said.
Scripts can help
“Also, it won’t make sense to just go back to normal (after the crisis fades),” Dr. Blinderman said. “We need to take a close look at how our society is functioning in the wake of the pandemic and the ways the health care system has failed us. We have learned that we’re all interconnected and we need to work together to serve our communities – locally and nationally – applying basic distributive justice.”
Could there be, for example, a national infrastructure for mobilizing and deploying palliative care resources to areas of greatest need, similar to what was done in New York?
At Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, a number of palliative care clinicians at the system’s hospitals worked together to develop scripts designed to help other clinicians start goals of care conversations with patients and families, for use in the hospital as well as in outpatient primary care and other settings, with results integrated into the system’s electronic health record.
Front-line clinicians may not have the time to ask for formal consults from palliative care because of high volume and rapidly changing patient status, explained Eytan Szmuilowicz, MD, director of the section of palliative medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Or they may not have access to specialty-level palliative care in their settings.
The scripts are aimed at primary care, emergency physicians, and hospitalists needing to consider critical care placement or attempted resuscitation and to ICU clinicians helping families make decisions about life-sustaining treatments. They also can help facilitate advance care planning discussions. An example is “CALMER,” a six-step mnemonic guide to promote goals of care discussions with hospitalized patients. For more information on these scripts, contact Dr. Szmuilowicz:.