For decades, surgeons have been at the forefront of the palliative care movement. From the historic utilization of palliative operations to relieve suffering to creation of the American College of Surgeons Palliative Care Task Force, surgeons are often first-line palliative care providers in the management of patients with advanced malignancy.
Palliative care involves paying attention to symptom distress, communicating with patients and families about goals of care in relation to prognosis and patient preferences, planning transitions, and engaging family support. Yet, despite a clear and established role, many surgeons are not prepared to effectively provide palliative care, and they are often resistant to the use of specialty palliative care services.
In my own training, I have witnessed apprehension and failure to use palliative care services. In one instance, I was managing an older patient after a complicated sarcoma resection. The patient suffered complications, which kept him hospitalized and returning to the hospital after short periods at a long-term acute care facility. I suggested that we call palliative care for assistance in management of the patient. He had pain, nausea, and poor oral intake, and he was depressed and anxious about his future. I was told "we don’t want the patient believing we were giving up on him."
After 3 weeks of minimal change, my attending relented. In a short time, the patient’s pain and nausea were better controlled, and we were able to have discussions with the patient and his family to clarify goals of care. Some of the symptom management techniques used methods that I had not yet encountered in my training and that seemed foreign and curious. But seeing the response left no question as to their utility. The patient was able to leave the hospital 2 weeks later with the palliative care service coordinating his management with the primary care provider and surgical team. This was a positive resolution to a significant problem. But what really hindered palliative care use?
Roadblocks include the term palliative having a negative connotation, being equated with "failure." Increased use of quality metrics may deincentivize palliative operations. Also, there is poor training and support for surgeons to provide primary palliative care services themselves. Yet, despite these barriers, there are opportunities for surgeons to improve care of patients with advanced malignancy by improving surgeon-patient communication and giving greater emphasis to advanced care planning prior to operative interventions.
As front-line providers for these patients, surgeons are an ideal conduit for delivery and improved use of early palliative care. My practice includes a discussion of advanced care planning with all of my cancer patients. I introduce this as a normal part of every discussion and refer the patient to the primary care provider or our Quality of Life service to facilitate further conversations and documentation. By destigmatizing the discussion for patients and families, a door is opened to an important part of comprehensive quality care. We must understand that diseases progress and complications occur. Failing to provide preemptive support to patients and families is true failure. With a preemptive approach, patients, families, and caregivers have a better understanding of the medical situation, and the latter can more effectively support the patient.
To standardize the role that surgeons routinely play in management of patients with advanced malignancy, efforts must focus on education and research. The role of education is twofold. First, surgical trainees need adequate tools to perform routine palliative care and an understanding of the appropriate timing to refer for specialized services. There have been multiple national efforts focused on teaching palliative care to varied practitioners. But given the aging population and the paucity of specialist palliative care providers, a renewed effort is needed. Second, surgeons must understand the role that palliative care plays and the benefits their patients can derive from it. Surgeons are routinely involved throughout the course of care of patients with malignancy from diagnosis to the end of life. Recognition of palliative care as a skill along the continuum of care already provided will improve outcomes.
Finally, research must focus on both models of use of palliative care and the quality of current practice. Palliative care as it pertains to surgeons is understudied: What teaching formats are most likely to affect clinical practice? What components of palliative care have an impact in surgical practice? What is the optimal timing and venue for providing palliative care in surgical practice? What health care system changes are needed to support surgeons to provide primary palliative care services?
We are uniquely aware of the complexities of care needed for management of patients with advanced malignancies. We are routinely called on to aid in the management of these patients. Surgical educators and researchers should focus their efforts on what is needed to fully integrate palliative care into patient-centered care already provided by trainees and surgeons.