Max was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) several years ago. Since then, physicians have managed his symptoms with medications, bronchodilators and oxygen therapy. The 73-year-old also benefits from palliative medicine, a medical specialty dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with serious or chronic illnesses, such as COPD, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, heart disease and more.
“I tell people that palliative medicine is ‘old time’ medicine in that it travels with the patient,” said Sam Downing, MD, Palliative Medicine Services, YRMC PhysicianCare. “It’s an extra layer of support that focuses on improving quality of life and helping people deal with the symptoms associated with their illness.”
Palliative Medicine: At Home or the Hospital
The “extra layer of support” is provided by a palliative medicine team that may include doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains and other specialists. This diverse team collaborates with the patients’ primary care and specialty physicians as well as patients and their family members. The palliative medicine team works with patients whether they are hospitalized or at home.
Palliative medicine focuses on patients’ comfort by helping alleviate physical pain and symptoms. It also addresses emotional issues patients may be experiencing. Palliative medicine specialists are experts at bringing together the patient’s care team to ensure effective communication.
For people like Max, palliative medicine may include a medication review aimed at simplifying often complex prescription regimens, prescribed by many different medical practitioners.
“We match the type of medical care patients receive with their goals,” said Dr. Downing. “This could include recommending that a patient with advanced COPD, for example, stop taking cholesterol medicine if that medication had undesirable side effects or was no longer indicated based on the patient’s goals.”
Helping at All Stages of Illness
Palliative medicine may begin when a chronic or major illness is diagnosed. However, the palliative medicine team can step in to help patients understand and manage the illness at any stage. According to Dr. Downing, palliative medicine helps patients:
- Better control their symptoms
- Cope more effectively with their illness
- Experience less depression
- Plan for future care needs
“With palliative medicine, patients can continue curative efforts,” Dr. Downing said. “People do better when their pain and symptoms are adequately managed. If they are comfortable during treatment, they do better with treatment.”
Taking Time with Patients and Families
Palliative medicine physicians and other members of the palliative medicine team also offer patients time that other medical specialists may not have available.
“We spend as much time as possible with the patient and their family members,” Dr. Downing said. “It’s important they not feel rushed as they discuss their needs or the options available to them.”
Support for Family Caregivers
Family caregivers also benefit from palliative medicine. There may be financial challenges as well as questions about providing adequate care at home. The palliative medicine team can help identify resources that may be available to family caregivers.
Do you believe you or someone you love may be a candidate for palliative medicine? Please contact your physician to discuss the possibility of palliative medicine or contact YRMC’s Palliative Medicine Services at (928) 775-5567.