Pikes Peak Hospice & Palliative Care on Understanding Hospice – LIVING WELL Magazine

Understanding Hospice

Pikes Peak Hospice & Palliative Care, Colorado Springs LIVING WELL Magazine

Recently, several articles documenting the benefits of hospice care have appeared in prestigious national publications. As El Paso County’s most experienced hospice provider, we believe the articles shed some much needed light about this holistic, compassionate, and expert approach to end-of-life care.

The hospice philosophy was introduced in the United States as a grassroots movement more than 30 years ago and is now considered part of mainstream medicine. There are currently more than 5,000 hospices in the United States, with more licensed each year.

Hospice is a unique blend of services that address the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the terminally ill person and their family. Care is provided by an interdisciplinary team of professionals and volunteers, guided by the goals of an individual plan of care. Unlike cure-oriented therapies and interventions, hospice care emphasizes palliative medicine and supportive services. Management of pain and symptoms is the primary clinical goal and is one of the cornerstones of hospice care. The care is patient-centered and emphasizes comfort, peace and quality of life.

Last August, The New Yorker Magazine published a compelling article by Atul Gawande, MD, (“Letting Go”) that examined the contradiction between advanced medical technology and providing a compassionate end-of-life experience. Gawande underscored the fact that “Modern medicine is good at staving off death with aggressive interventions – and bad at knowing when to focus, instead, on improving the days that terminal patients have left.”

Numerous studies have examined patient perspectives regarding critical end-of-life concerns:  dying with dignity, dying at home without unnecessary pain, and reducing the burden placed on family caregivers. Hospice care can successfully address these concerns.

However, many other aspects of hospice care are misunderstood. For example, both patients and clinicians often fail to realize that hospice is not just for cancer patients on the brink of death. In fact, for many people death is months, not days, away. Only 40% of all hospice patients have terminal cancer. Actually, the top four non-cancer diagnoses for hospice patients are debility, heart disease, end-stage dementia, and lung disease.

Another misconception is that quality end-of-life care is expensive or not available to many in need. Under Medicare and Medicaid, most hospice expenses related to the terminal illness are paid in full, including all medication and equipment, as well as all visits by hospice nurses, home health aides, social workers and chaplains. Many private insurance plans also pay for hospice benefits.

Sadly, most people aren’t aware that hospice care can improve the quality of life. One study reported in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management indicates that hospice care actually prolongs the lives of some terminally ill patients. A 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine hypothesized that “with earlier referral to a hospice program, [lung cancer] patients may receive care that results in better management of symptoms, leading to stabilization of their condition and prolonged survival.”

Currently 40% of potentially eligible Americans utilize hospice care at the end-of-life. So why aren’t more people using hospice? “Despite the benefits hospice care provides, there is a perception among many Americans that hospice means you’ve given up hope,” says Martha M. Barton, President & CEO of Pikes Peak Hospice & Palliative Care. “We’ve been serving patients and families in the Pikes Peak region for more than 30 years. Of those we see, we hear too often that they either were not made aware of the hospice option until the very late stages of their loved one’s illness, or they were afraid to initiate these difficult conversations. Later they ask themselves, ‘Why didn’t we utilize hospice services sooner?’”

Barton continues, “The good news? More than 1.5 million Americans chose hospice care in the past year and found peace, comfort and dignity as a result. The bad?  One-third of those patients died or were discharged in seven days or less – too short a time to take full advantage of all the services available under hospice, including the much-needed support for family caregivers. Unfortunately, too many families and physicians still don’t realize what a positive difference this quality end-of-life care can make.”

Hospice care provides people with choices. Just like an obstetrician provides specialized medical expertise and support when we enter the world, hospice provides expertise and support during the last phase of life.

To learn more, contact Pikes Peak Hospice & Palliative Care at 719- 633-3400, or visit our website at pikespeakhospice.org. Read Dr. Atul Gawande’s article, “Letting Go,” at pikespeakhospice.org/lettinggo.