Palliative care: Extra support for patients (and their families)

Young medical provider assists an elderly patient at home.

Most doctors spend their days diagnosing illness and trying to cure it. A growing number of doctors and nurses, though, care for patients whose conditions aren’t curable. They are palliative care specialists, and they focus on helping patients and their families manage the symptoms and stress of living with a chronic condition.

“We’re here to help you live as well as you can,” says Dr. Tara Friedman, regional medical officer of Aspire Health, the largest provider of non-hospice, community-based palliative care in the country.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care treats patients with an advanced stage of a serious illness or a chronic condition. Some examples are cancer, congestive heart failure (CHF), dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Aspire palliative care doctors and nurses meet patients in the convenience of their home.  They look at a patient’s health, medications, environment, emotional state and support system, Dr. Friedman says. They follow up with phone check-ins and in-person visits. Dr. Friedman says palliative care doctors and nurses work to stay in touch with a patient’s doctors and “fill in the gaps between primary care provider visits.”

Enhancing usual care  

The unique access of palliative care specialists provides opportunities to pick up on clues and act quickly when something isn’t quite right.

Dr. Friedman described a situation when, at a routine visit, the Aspire team noticed the declining condition of a woman undergoing second round chemotherapy for her cancer. The patient’s oncologist was surprised when he heard from the Aspire’s specialist. He thought the patient was doing well, based on their visits.

“It seemed the patient would rally to look her best for those [oncology] appointments and not let on that she was having trouble,” Dr. Friedman says. “Meanwhile, the visits would wipe her out and she would have to stay in bed for several days afterwards.

“By coming into the patient’s home and seeing how her treatment was impacting her daily life, we were able to provide the doctor with a more realistic picture of her status. That allowed her to get the most appropriate care.”

Care for the family, too

Dr. Friedman says nurse practitioners can educate family members on what to expect – which helps them know what to do if problems arise. Palliative care teams may also include social workers, case managers and members of the clergy to help find community resources, arrange for necessary medical equipment, manage medications and support caregivers.

Not to be confused with hospice

It’s an important distinction.

“Hospice usually means stopping specialty treatments and focusing solely on quality of life,” Dr. Friedman says. “Palliative care can be pursued alongside disease-specific treatments, with symptom management, quality of life and education for the patient and their family.”

Aspire Health’s services are 100% covered by ConnectiCare health plans. There is no cost to members for their home visits. ConnectiCare works with Aspire Health to identify members who may benefit from palliative care. If you are interested in palliative care, you can call ConnectiCare’s nurse care managers at ­1-800-390-3522 (TTY: 1-800-842-9710), Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.