Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Hospice and Palliative Care - Are We Giving a Mixed Message?

Is there a difference between Hospice and Palliative Care?
Some say this is merely a matter of semantics, so why bother? I'd like to offer my thoughts, as someone who has been involved with "hospice" since the mid-80s.

The reason why this is an important issue is quite simply because it matters to the public. It matters because use of the terms together suggests to some that they are synonymous, and to others that they are distinct. I submit they are neither the same nor distinct.

In its earlier days, hospice described a concept of care. Over the past quarter-century (once hospice became covered by Medicare as a benefit), it has come to describe (define?) an organized and highly prescribed system through which end-of-life services are provided. The practitioners of these services have taken on, perhaps out of convenience, the name of hospice into their titles.It's analogous to surgeons describing themselves as Operating Room and Surgical Medicine physicians, or ER docs referring to their specialty as Hospital and Emergency Medicine. I'm sure you could think of other analogies.

Those receiving palliative care do so in many settings (home, hospital, SNF, outpatient office, assisted living, hospice inpatient unit) while utilizing various health benefits/coverages (of course the hospice benefit but also home health benefit, physician services, i.e Medicare part B )to pay for these palliative services. In other words, palliative care is provided by a host of professionals to patients during "late-life". Some, but certainly not all of these patients use the hospice benefit (provided by Medicare and most private health insurance plans) to cover the cost of palliative care.

A recent study commissioned by the Center to Advance Palliative Care found that much of the public did not understand or was not familiar with the term palliative care. But it's not only the public who is confused. The specialty's own practitioners are confused, and are unintentionally adding to the general misunderstanding. On the website of a prominent Midwest medical center, a reader comes across this comment,“Palliative care and hospice are different,” explained the medical director of the palliative care service.  “Hospice is restricted to people who have a prognosis of less than six months to live. However, palliative care does not have that restriction because it does more than just help people at the end of their life.” What does a patient, or family member do with such information? For that matter, what does a prospective referring source (a discharge planner, or family physician) do with that information?

The question we in the field should be asking is how we can best increase access to palliative care. If some of that palliative care is provided by a licensed hospice, reimbursed by the hospice benefit, fine. If some of the care is provided by a hospital, or a SNF, reimbursed by the physician services benefit, all to the good. If some of the palliative care is provided by a home health agency, reimbursed under a home health benefit, all the better. What matters is that a patient (and family) receive timely access to palliative care and its practitioners.

More on this subject in future posts. in the meantime, I invite your feedback.