Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Moving Palliative Care Upstream - Can we ever be TOO early?

By Christian Sinclair (@ctsinclair)


The growth of palliative care in the community and outpatient settings has been one of the more popular stories in our field in the past few years. No longer is palliative care only available to serve in the intensive care units, but the demand for person-centered, family-oriented, symptom-based care with an emphasis on communication and decision-making is being heard in the earlier stages of illness. Serving patients and families in clinics and in their home is unleashing the true potential of palliative care. Even in my own work leading our outpatient efforts in an academic cancer center, we are very excited about our upstream involvement setting the stage for the 2016 ASCO Clinical Practice Guidelines on implementing palliative care into oncology practices. I have seen the positive impact of being involved early and it gets me excited to hear from my peers across the country doing the same thing.

But we have learned in the delivery of palliative care, to be wary of the overpromise of new medications and new technologies. We see the patient impact due to the hype around a new treatment lead to a widening of “eligible” patients which is often followed by a lack of impact compared to original trials. We hear the stories of medical bankruptcy because of expensive new treatments that never panned out for patients. And knowing this I have begun to worry about the Goldilocks principle as applied to palliative care; not too late while also being not too early. Unfortunately, not all the research is helping us define the right time to initiate palliative care, which is a crucial question because we still do not have the workforce to be undisciplined in what populations are served.

The Danish Palliative Care Trial (DanPaCT), published in Palliative Medicine this May by Groenvold et al, is just the kind of study which may help us begin to focus our efforts on this important question of timing. It is the first major European trial of SPC compared to all the other studies which have been based on North America. DanPaCT researchers looked at early referral to a specialist palliative care (SPC) team versus standard care. I came across this study because it was covered in the December Hospice and Palliative Medicine Journal Club (#hpmJC, @hpmJC on Twitter). The study population involved nearly 300 people with stage IV (metastatic) cancer at 5 Danish oncology centers. The SPC intervention took place over eight weeks and included in-person and telephone visits. The outcome studied was the change the single most distressing need for a patient using the EORTC QLQ-C30. And the results showed that early specialist palliative care made no difference in the most distressing issue. That is not heartening.

(Sidebar - Patient Selection - They looked at 1146 patients with metastatic cancer and after completing a palliative care screen (showing multiple high scores on EORTC QLQ-C30), they found 464 (40%) patients that they thought would benefit from SPC. That is a helpful metric to emphasize not everyone with metastatic cancer may have needs to be met by your palliative care team. Also, 30 of the 297 patients died during the eight-week study period, which is a pretty high mortality if this was designed to be a trial of EARLY palliative care.)

The study was well-designed and the publication is a must-read for anyone looking to make a case for upstream palliative care. I expect it will be featured in the state of the science at The Annual Assembly of Hospice and Palliative Care in 2018 even though it is a negative study There are some caveats to be made before you change course and tell your Stem Cell Transplant Team that you can’t see the patient BEFORE they get their transplant because you won’t make a difference.

The researchers looked at primary need, which was based on patient-reported outcomes (Good!) but picked because it was the highest score on the severity scale, not because the patient said it was the most important thing (Bad.) We all can imagine a patient who rates their anxiety a 7 and their pain a 5, but states that they would really be less anxious if they felt some control over their pain, so they feel pain control is the most important issue. Also picking one issue is a narrow view of the whole-person approach that defines palliative care, but to be fair when they looked at the improvement in other areas in the secondary outcomes analysis, there really was no major impact by SPC either. While not the focus of this first major DanPaCT publication, I hope to see other key areas of impact published like health care utilization (days at home, hospitalizations, ER visits, cost of care) and patient satisfaction with care.

It was not clear what professional disciplines were involved in delivering SPC, which is one of the most important factors in helping other clinicians decide how they can design their palliative care program. Many of the studies featured in the ASCO CPG were quite explicit in how their palliative care intervention was delivered, which helps program leaders decide what staff they need to hire.
So this gets me back to the Goldilocks Principle. If we are going to properly balance our small but growing palliative care workforce and meet the needs of patients who would benefit most from our interventions, is there a problem with being involved with being too far upstream? We all know the problems involved with being called too late, now we might start developing a vocabulary around the challenge of being called too early.

We will be talking about this Wednesday, December 27th at 6p PT/9p ET on Twitter at #hpm chat. We hope you will join us!

Additional Info:

Christian Sinclair, MD, FAAHPM, is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas Health System, editor-in-chief of Pallimed, and immediate past-president of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. You can find him on Twitter at @ctsinclair. 


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