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Palliative care update highlights role of nonspecialists


 

The new edition of national palliative care guidelines provide updated clinical strategies and guidance relevant to all clinicians providing care for critically ill patients, not just those clinicians actively specialized in palliative care.

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The Clinical Practice Guidelines for Quality Palliative Care, 4th Edition, emphasizes the importance of palliative care provided by “clinicians in primary care and specialty care practices, such as oncologists,” the guideline authors stated.

The latest revision of the guideline aims to establish a foundation for “gold-standard” palliative care for people living with serious illness, regardless of diagnosis, prognosis, setting, or age, according to the National Coalition for Hospice and Palliative Care, which published the clinical practice guidelines.

The update was developed by the National Consensus Project for Quality Palliative Care (NCP), which includes 16 national organizations with palliative care and hospice expertise, and is endorsed by more than 80 national organizations, including the American Society of Hematology and the Oncology Nurses Society.

One key reason for the update, according to the NCP, was to acknowledge that today’s health care system may not be meeting patients’ palliative care needs.

Specifically, the guidelines call on all clinicians who are not palliative specialists to integrate palliative care principles into their routine assessment of seriously ill patients with conditions such as heart failure, lung disease, and cancer.

This approach differs from the way palliative care is traditionally practiced, often by fellowship-trained physicians, trained nurses, and other specialists who provide that support.

The guidelines are organized into sections covering palliative care structure and processes, care for the patient nearing the end of life, and specific aspects of palliative care, including physical, psychological, and psychiatric; social; cultural, ethical, and legal; and spiritual, religious, and existential aspects.

“The expectation is that all clinicians caring for seriously ill patients will integrate palliative care competencies, such as safe and effective pain and symptom management and expert communication skills in their practice, and palliative care specialists will provide expertise for those with the most complex needs,” the guideline authors wrote.

Implications for treatment of oncology patients

These new guidelines represent a “blueprint for what it looks like to provide high-quality, comprehensive palliative care to people with serious illness,” said Thomas W. LeBlanc, MD, who is a medical oncologist, palliative care physician, and patient experience researcher at Duke University, Durham, N.C.

“Part of this report to is about trying to raise the game of everybody in medicine and provide a higher basic level of primary palliative care to all people with serious illness, but then also to figure out who has higher levels of needs where the specialists should be applied, since they are a scarce resource,” said Dr. LeBlanc.

An issue with that traditional model is a shortage of specialized clinicians to meet palliative care needs, said Dr. LeBlanc, whose clinical practice and research focuses on palliative care needs of patients with hematologic malignancies.

“Palliative care has matured as a field such that we are now actually facing workforce shortage issues and really fundamental questions about who needs us the most, and how we increase our reach to improve the lives of more patients and families facing serious illness,” he said in an interview.

That’s a major driver behind the emphasis in these latest guidelines on providing palliative care in the community, coordinating care, and dealing with care transitions, he added.

“I hope that this document will help to demonstrate the value and the need for palliative care specialists, and for improvements in primary care in the care of patients with hematologic diseases in general,” he said. “To me, this adds increasing legitimacy to this whole field.”

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