As we enter into this new year, it is a good time to review the past few years of living through a pandemic and the impact this has had on the field of palliative care.
According to the World Health Organization, “Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families who are facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, by the prevention and relief of suffering through early identification, assessment and treatment of pain and other problems whether physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”1 They identify a global need and recognize palliative care as a “human right to health and as a standard of care particularly for individuals living with a serious illness.1 However, the WHO goes further to recognize palliative care as an essential part of the response team during crises and health emergencies like a pandemic, noting that a response team without palliative care is “medically deficient and ethically indefensible.”2
The need for palliative care in the United States is projected to grow significantly in the next decades.3 However, there has been insufficient staffing to meet these needs, even prior to the pandemic.4 The demand for palliative care reached further unprecedented levels during the pandemic as palliative care teams played an integral role and were well situated to support not only patients and families with COVID-19,5 but to also support the well-being of health care teams caring for COVID-19 patients.6,7
A recent survey that was conducted by the Center to Advance Palliative Care among palliative care leadership captured the experiences of leading their teams through a pandemic. Below are the results of this survey, which highlighted important issues and developments to palliative care during the pandemic.6
Increasing need for palliative care
One of the main findings from the national survey of palliative care leaders corroborated that the demands for palliative care have increased significantly from 2020 through the pandemic.
As with many areas in the health care system, the pandemic has emphasized the strain and short staffing of the palliative care teams. In the survey, 61% of leaders reported that palliative care consults significantly increased from prepandemic levels. But only 26% of these leaders said they had the staffing support to meet these needs.
Value of palliative care
The value of palliative care along with understanding of the role of palliative care has been better recognized during the pandemic and has been evidenced by the increase in palliative care referrals from clinical providers, compared with prepandemic levels. In addition, data collected showed that earlier palliative care consultations reduced length of hospital stay, decreased ICU admissions, and improved patient, family, and provider satisfaction.
Well-being of the workforce
The pandemic has been a tremendously stressful time for the health care workforce that has undoubtedly led to burnout. A nationwide study of physicians,8 found that 61% of physicians experienced burnout. This is a significant increase from prepandemic levels with impacts on mental health (that is, anxiety, depression). This study did not include palliative care specialists, but the CAPC survey indicates a similar feeling of burnout. Because of this, some palliative care specialists have left the field altogether, or are leaving leadership positions because of burnout and exhaustion from the pandemic. This was featured as a concern among palliative care leaders, where 93% reported concern for the emotional well-being of the palliative care team.