Hospice Out of Sync

Photo credit: Melissa Kroll Photography  www.melissakrollphotography.com

Photo credit: Melissa Kroll Photography  www.melissakrollphotography.com

We discovered this informative article by Joanne Kenen in Politico thanks to a tweet from Zen Hospice Project, an amazing hospice care provider in the San Francisco Bay Area. The article recognizes both the importance of home hospice and its challenges. The main point that the article addresses is the fact that dying, family structure, and illnesses have changed over the decades, making the traditional model of hospice out of sync. It is a worthwhile read.

The article explains that hospice pushes back against the over-medicalization of death and emphasizes comfort and family. But in today’s world of advanced medical treatment, as we’ve discussed before, it can be difficult to determine “the right time” to enter hospice.

When patients elect hospice, they must usually give up on curing or containing their disease—a difficult decision to make in a system that dangles the promise of a medical fix just within reach. In practice, people often turn to hospice for only a handful of days, at the very end, after using up a lot of expensive high-tech care that may have drawn out death more than it extended life.
— "Hospice in Crisis", Joanne Kenen

Adding to those issues, the care needed during home hospice can be a significant commitment for family members, complicated by the fact that families have changed, living further apart and less likely to be available for full-time caregiving. As we experienced and as the article says, the primary and time consuming care is given by the family. The article’s author writes:

No matter how good and caring the hospice team—nurses, aides, social workers and, as desired, chaplains—much of the work falls to the family. And even when the family is willing and well-equipped, as my own family was as we took care of my father with hospice in the final months of his life, it’s not so easy to die at home.

With an aging Baby Boomer population, this problem needs solutions now. Unfortunately, the solutions are complicated. The article discusses several ideas for changes in payment structures and policies but notes that, as for Washington, “a comprehensive national long-term care program is so challenging economically and politically that hardly anyone in the capital even bothers talking about it.” And while doctors and policy experts have some ideas, the article explains “they are still in the ‘floating ideas’ stage, not agenda items for Congress or the Medicare agency.” We feel optimistic to know that researchers like Joan Teno, whose research on hospice care we’ve reviewed before and who is quoted in the article, are working on these complicated and urgent issues. Unfortunately, clear solutions and ways to pay for those solutions are yet to be determined. While we wait, there are many families currently struggling with caregiving and suffering through less than optimal hospice experiences.

Perhaps what we are most excited about is the article’s discussion of “the relatively new specialty of palliative care.” Palliative care offers a similar philosophy as hospice but does not require patients to give up curative care, like chemotherapy. Some hospices even allow “concurrent care,” which allows patients to start hospice while keeping some regular or palliative care treatments. As we’ve said before, this is a much needed reform. We are also hopeful for reform based on the results of a study described in the article:

Medicare’s Innovation Center is running a multi-year test of that approach for four diseases, including advanced cancer. The idea is that patients who get the symptom management and emotional supports of hospice and palliative care, and who come to better understand their own illness, make different choices.

The idea there being that if patients understand their options and goals better, they can decide if the benefits of drastic treatments will outweigh the risks. This concept reminded us of Lucy Kalanithi’s inspiring Ted Talk. For more on making choices as a patient, by asking “what medical care will help you live the way you want to?”, watch Lucy’s talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/lucy_kalanithi_what_makes_life_worth_living_in_the_face_of_death

We are hopeful that the ideas posed in this article, such as different payor systems, holistic approaches, technology and telemedicine, will provide better hospice outcomes, including for the caregivers and families involved. At least it seems that there is a movement, a cry for help to try to prevent the “tsunami” that Joan Teno warns is coming. She personally told us “stories move policy” and we wholeheartedly believe her.