Palliative Care is Growing Area
Dr. Diane Meier, 55, of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, is one of the leading exponents of a new and growing discipline known as palliative care. Palliative care means soothing the symptoms of a disease, regardless of whether a patient is seeking a cure. It’s a concept that’s totally transforming the way doctors and hospitals treat seriously ill patients. The idea of easing pain and improving the quality of a patient’s life may not seem radical, but classic medical training focuses on attacking the disease. Most doctors simply don’t have time to be supersensitive Marcus Welbys checking up on patients to see how they feel. Even if they do have the time, they lack the advanced training of palliative-care doctors and nurses to ease symptoms such as anxiety, pain, or severe nausea. Most are better equipped to deal with microorganisms than matters of comfort.
When people first hear about palliative care, they often confuse it with hospice care. It’s not. Hospice focuses on terminally ill patients: people who no longer seek treatments to cure them and expect to live about six months or less. Palliative-care teams—consisting of everyone from social workers to physical therapists—can follow patients for days, months, or years.
Thanks in large part to the training and outreach programs Meier runs as the head of the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) in New York City, the number of hospitals with palliative-care programs has nearly doubled, from 632 in 2000 to 1,240 in 2005. Palliative care has the potential to change the way doctors and nurses address pain and emotional distress—not to mention how they help patients and families sort through their choices as life nears its end.