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Palliative Care: It’s All About Living Well

Karin Porter-Williamson, MD, Palliative Care Medical Director

Holding a patient's hand while he receives his first chemo treatment. Recognizing subtle signs of stress in a caregiver and providing helpful solutions. Coordinating a change in the timing of a medication from morning to evening to allow a mother more energy for her children. These are just a few of the ways a trained palliative care team can assist patients, families and physicians as they deal with a serious illness.

Palliative care is all about living well

Since 1999, The University of Kansas Hospital has provided inpatient palliative care for those with cancer and other serious illnesses. Now we are expanding our palliative care services to include two outpatient cancer clinics: our blood and marrow transplant clinic and The University of Kansas Cancer Center – North. By offering palliative care to a greater number of cancer patients and earlier in the disease process, we hope to improve the quality of life for many survivors and their families. 

Cancer treatment and palliative care go hand in hand

Many patients, and even some physicians, are unsure of when to request palliative care. It can easily be confused with hospice care, a program typically reserved for terminal patients who have discontinued curative treatment. When we recommend palliative care for a patient at our hospital, we are not suggesting that the end of life is near or that nothing more can be done. Instead, we believe medical treatment and palliative care should be delivered concurrently for the best possible outcomes.

What your patient can expect 

When you refer a patient to The University of Kansas Hospital or The University of Kansas Cancer Center, palliative care is just one of the many services he or she may receive. Our physicians examine new patients to identify the best course of treatment and the best location for care. If your patient qualifies for palliative services, our specialists will assist with the following:
  1. Manage pain, stress and other symptoms so the patient can live each day as well as possible.
  2. Facilitate communication between the patient, medical providers, caregivers and families.
  3. Coordinate a comprehensive patient-centered plan of care.
  4. Provide emotional support for patients and their family members.

Compassionate and highly trained specialists

Our palliative care team includes physicians, clinical nurses, social workers, spiritual care specialists and psychologists. We help patients better understand their conditions and the treatment options available to them. We integrate closely with the primary oncologist and nurse to optimize symptom management and to facilitate patient-centered communication. To complete the communication loop, we also inform and assist the patient’s caregivers and family. We understand how challenging a cancer diagnosis, or diagnosis for any serious condition, can be for everyone involved.

Palliative care helps patients stay on treatment schedule

Minimizing physical pain, fatigue, side effects and emotional stress can be a huge relief for seriously ill patients. It not only helps them enjoy life; it can also enable them to tolerate treatment. And that can lead to improved outcomes. In addition, patients who receive palliative care are more knowledgeable about their disease and make better informed decisions about their care.

Living better and longer

While the primary goal of palliative care is to improve the quality of life for seriously ill patients, it has also been shown to extend the length of life. According to a 2010 research study of 150 lung cancer patients, those who received early palliative care in combination with curative treatment lived an average of three months longer than patients who did not receive palliative care.* It’s possible that relieving physical and emotional pain may be more effective in treating cancer than we ever imagined. And this hypothesis may hold true for other diseases as well.

The best is yet to come

At The University of Kansas Hospital, our goal is to train nurses and physicians throughout our hospital and clinics to recognize the benefits of palliative care. In the future, we hope to provide palliative care services to an even larger patient population, including those suffering from advanced cardiac conditions, chronic pulmonary disease and advanced liver disease. It’s all part of our commitment to deliver advanced medicine combined with a healthy dose of compassion.

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