Recently, I was telling my boomer hiking pals about my interview with a palliative care physician. No strangers to the ER or orthopedic surgeries, my 60-something buddies asked dumbfounded, “What’s that?”
Fresh from my conversation with Karen Knops, MD, medical director of Overlake Hospital Palliative Care, I explained the best I could. Palliative care is often called supportive care. It focuses on relieving the pain and stress of people dealing with serious illnesses like cancer or heart problems. The goal is to help improve the individual’s quality of life.
“The health care industry is realizing that millions of people need more than disease management,” said Knops, who joined Overlake’s palliative team a year ago. “They need care and humanistic medicine.”
But what is palliative care? Who benefits?
First of all, palliative care is NOT hospice. The goal of hospice care is to provide comfort to people when they are dying. Rather, a palliative care team (doctors, nurses and other specialists such as social workers), works alongside medical treatment providers to help patients better manage their condition as well as support the family with resources and compassion.
Knops noted that although palliative care is available and can benefit all ages; the majority of patients who receive it are elderly. She recalled a common scenario:
Mrs. Foster was doing pretty well into her early 80s until she fell and suffered a hip fracture. At rehab Mrs. Foster worked hard and it looked like she could return home when she had to be readmitted to the hospital with pneumonia. Although the pneumonia was treatable, the combination of issues made a big change in her overall level of function.
“Is this woman dying?” said Knops. “No, but a life altering and life limiting change has occurred, so her quality of life has changed for the long term. This is when we can step in to help this person manage the stress of their condition and the stress of the health care system.”
According to Knops, another common scenario is when a patient, who does not have a general practitioner, needs care and resources. For instance, some patients may see their cardiologist so often that they don’t have a regular doctor.
“That’s okay until they need help with pain management or other issues such as nausea or difficulty sleeping,” said Knops. “We recommend these patients get a primary care physician. Working with this doctor and at any stage of the illness, we can help coordinate care and treatment, provide advanced care planning and family support services.”
How to get palliative care?
Dr. Knops observed that palliative consultation has been available in the hospital for patients since 2011. Of late, Overlake Palliative Care staff has grown to include three physicians, a nurse practitioner and a social worker. Chaplains work hand-in-hand with the team.
In keeping with a surge in awareness of the benefits of palliative care, Overlake is initiating a pilot project by the end of 2017. Partnering with the Overlake Cardiology Clinic, the project’s goal is to attract outpatients to utilize palliative support.
“It plans to address the chronic care giving issues of the large cardiac population, which also tends to be older and more medically fragile,” explained Knops.
Although the pilot project can only accommodate a limited number of outside referrals from Overlake cardiologists, on the inpatient side the referral would come from the patient’s attending physician.
Why should we seek palliative care?
After our two-hour hike, one of my gal pals, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, whispered to me, “You know, I’m a good candidate for palliative care. I’m not dying but I have six different doctors, 30 medications and I’m always in horrible pain.”
My friend’s honesty prompted my recollection of how Dr. Knops defined the word palliative. It means “to shield from suffering, to protect from being harmed.”
Given so many of us can use and/or will need the protection of palliative care, I am grateful this medical specialty is becoming increasingly valued and available to provide holistic, humanistic support.
For more information:
Overlake Hospital Palliative Care:
Overlake Hospital Medical Center
1035 116th Ave NE
Bellevue, WA 98004