Monday, February 21, 2011

Palliative Care Teams – A Big Improvement in Quality of Life

During the healthcare reform debate there was the unfortunate reference to “death panels.” No such thing was ever in the proposals but it meant that an important part of medical care was set aside as too “toxic” to discuss. But end of life counseling is very important. Indeed it is good to have realistic discussions at the beginning of a serious illness; indeed it is only fair to the patient and the patient’s family.

Palliative care (I don’t like the term; it seems to imply only end of life care and so I prefer “supportive care”) is designed to achieve the best possible quality of care and the least suffering possible. This is not limited to pain management but also to psychosocial support, spiritual needs, the treatment of any symptoms, and assistance or at least support for decision making. It might be a complicated pain management program or a simple cup of tea in the afternoon to talk over important issues. Ideally it uses a team approach including physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, chaplains and others all working together. Palliative care teams have demonstrated their value in improving care and, interestingly, substantially reducing medical care costs.

There was a recent report of a controlled trail of palliative care. 151 patients with lung cancer entered a randomized trial when they first came to be treated in a thoracic oncology practice. It compared standard care to the same care plus a palliative care team. The results were clear that palliative care added to the patients’ quality of life; reduced the frequency of depression, the number of hospital days and even extended the survival by 2.7 months.

My experience, and others report the same, is that many physicians are uncomfortable with palliative care and tend not to refer their patients or if they do, not until very late in the patients’ course. Perhaps it gets at the deep inner concern that they do not want to be seen as “giving up” on the patient and perhaps it even forces them to admit that they cannot always cure every patient. Whatever, it is unfortunate because many people who could benefit from early referral to the palliative care team are not getting that benefit. Most large hospitals now have such teams; it behooves the patient or family to ask about them.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Protocol Medicine – It Is Time For Doctors To Recognize Their Value

We hear that doctors do not like “protocol medicine” – they do not want to follow a “cookbook” when every patient is different. It is not a good understanding of the issues.

Some years ago when I worked in a branch of he National Cancer Institute and then the University of Maryland Cancer Center, we admitted many patients with acute leukemia. The treatment approach including the necessary special tests to obtain, chemotherapy drugs, steps to prevent infection, prevent kidney problems, etc was complicated. So I wrote out a set of admission orders, had them typed up, xeroxed and kept at the nurses’ station. When a new patient was admitted, the physician took one of those order sheets and either accepted each individual order or made changes. But the doctor now would not forget something important such as a drug, its dose or the number of times per day. This worked much better than depending on memory yet any specific order could be eliminated or modified as needed for the individual patient. This was not a “cookbook” but rather an improvement in both safety and quality.

Peter Pronovost and colleagues from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health have worked on designing similar protocols for ICU patients for those needing the insertion of a central intravenous catheter to reduce the frequency of hospital acquired infections. This is basic stuff like gown and glove, use a disinfectant on the skin, use sterile materials, etc. It works; the infection rate falls by 60% if the guidelines are followed. Indeed in the Michigan hospitals where the technique was evaluated, the rate dropped to zero.

Remarkably, many doctors at hospitals across the country rebel at having those steps to follow using the same argument of “protocol medicine.” And equally remarkably, most hospital executives are hesitant to insist. They will need to become more assertive and physicians must accept the new standards. It is a matter of rights and responsibilities.

If physicians want the public (and elected representatives) to be supportive of malpractice tort reform, they will first have to accept “protocol or “cookbook” or “checklist” approaches that are tried and proven to improve quality and safety.

Praise for Dr Schimpff

The craft of science writing requires skills that are arguably the most underestimated and misunderstood in the media world. Dumbing down all too often gets mistaken for clarity. Showmanship frequently masks a poor presentation of scientific issues. Factoids are paraded in lieu of ideas. Answers are marketed at the expense of searching questions. By contrast, Steve Schimpff provides a fine combination of enlightenment and reading satisfaction. As a medical scientist he brings his readers encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. As a teacher and as a medical ambassador to other disciplines he's learned how to explain medical breakthroughs without unnecessary jargon. As an advisor to policymakers he's acquired the knack of cutting directly to the practical effects, showing how advances in medical science affect the big lifestyle and economic questions that concern us all. But Schimpff's greatest strength as a writer is that he's a physician through and through, caring above all for the person. His engaging conversational style, insights and fascinating treasury of cutting-edge information leave both lay readers and medical professionals turning his pages. In his hands the impact of new medical technologies and discoveries becomes an engrossing story about what lies ahead for us in the 21st century: as healthy people, as patients of all ages, as children, as parents, as taxpayers, as both consumers and providers of health services. There can be few greater stories than the adventure of what awaits our minds, bodies, budgets, lifespans and societies as new technologies change our world. Schimpff tells it with passion, vision, sweep, intelligence and an urgency that none of us can ignore.

-- N.J. Slabbert, science writer, co-author of Innovation, The Key to Prosperity: Technology & America's Role in the 21st Century Global Economy (with Aris Melissaratos, director of technology enterprise at the John Hopkins University).