Palliative care update highlights role of nonspecialists


Palliative care in surgical care

These guidelines are particularly useful to surgeons in part because of their focus on what’s known as primary palliative care, said to Geoffrey P. Dunn, MD, former chair of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Surgical Palliative Care. Palliative care, the new guidelines suggest, can be implemented by nonspecialists.

Primary palliative care includes diverse skills such as breaking adverse news to patients, managing uncomplicated pain, and being able to recognize signs and symptoms of imminent demise. “These are the minimum deliverables for all people dealing with seriously ill patients,” Dr. Dunn said in an interview. “It’s palliative care that any practicing physician should be able to handle.”

Dr. Dunn concurred with Dr. LaBlanc about the workforce shortage in the palliative field. The traditional model has created a shortage of specialized clinicians to meet palliative care needs. Across the board, “staffing for palliative teams is very inconsistent,” said Dr. Dunn. “It’s a classic unfunded mandate.”

While these guidelines are a step forward in recognizing the importance of palliative care outside of the palliative care specialty, there is no reference to surgery anywhere in the text of the 141-page prepublication draft provided by the NCP, Dr. Dunn noted in the interview.

“There’s still a danger of parallel universes, where surgery is developing its own understanding of this in parallel with the more general national palliative care movement,” he said. Despite that, there is a growing connection between surgery and the broader palliative care community. That linkage is especially important given the number of seriously ill patients with high symptom burden that are seen in surgery.

“I think where surgeons are beginning to find [palliative principles] very helpful is dealing with these protracted serial discussions with families in difficult circumstances, such as how long is the life support going to be prolonged in someone with a devastating head injury, or multiple system organ failure in the elderly,” Dr. Dunn added.

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