A $238,000 grant will help more than 500 seriously ill patients find relief from the symptoms of their diseases in the next two years. The Regence Foundation awarded the grant on April 5 to Rogue Valley Medical Center to launch a palliative care program. This follows a $23,000 donation by Regence in 2010 that implemented what is a fairly new medical specialty in the United States.
Only 24 percent of people surveyed nationally were familiar with the term palliative care, according to Lynn Harden, Executive Director of the Regence Foundation and the largest health insurer in the Northwest. When those surveyed learned about palliative care, they all said it was a critical medical support system.
Although Oregon is a center for palliative care, so far it has been mostly focused in Portland. The Regence grant is an opportunity for southern Oregon to also have the advantage of palliative care.
Palliative care at RVMC will begin with a team that consists of Dr. Davis Wilkins, a full-time nurse, full-time social worker, a chaplain and an administrative assistant. Team members will work with the patient’s physician and family for the purpose of management of pain and other symptoms. They will offer support and counseling for crises associated with new diagnoses and critical transitions such as admission to hospice.
The program can be deployed at the onset of a diagnosis in conjunction with curative care. In the case of cancer, palliative care has been shown to extend quality time by three months and alleviate pain and symptoms associated with the disease. It also alleviates emotional and spiritual stress on patients and families. “It’s a gift. It’s a gift we think every patient in this country has a right to have access to,” said Harden on behalf of Regence.
Sue Kilbourne, Clinical Manager of Oncology at RVMC told the audience of a personal experience she had in her life. When she was 16, her mother was diagnosed with a serious illness and died 18-months later. Four decades later, Kilbourne is still haunted by the fact she did not know what to do. The family’s housekeeper had to teach her how to care for her mother. “I could have done a lot better with education and support,” she shared. “I truly think it (palliative care) is the right thing to do.”
Palliative care is an option for patients to decide, with their care givers, how they want to live this stage of their life. It is a comprehensive way of looking at the whole person and their quality of life rather than just treating a disease.
Customized treatments by the team, utilizing technology such as imaging, would ease pain, depression, nausea, sleep difficulties and other issues. Helping a patient have hard conversations with their families would be another benefit, said Dr. Wilkins who is heading up the team.
There is a huge need for palliative care in the Rogue Valley. “There are a lot of sick people here,” Wilkins stressed. RVMC is already providing palliative care (unofficially) on a daily basis. “We will help them do it better,” she added.
Explaining this new concept further, Wilkins said palliative care is for patients sick enough to be admitted to the hospital with life threatening or chronic conditions such as cancer, COPD or neurological illnesses that progress over time. It is also for cases where a trauma patient in ICU could die suddenly such as in the case of a gunshot wound. Hospitals are a key component in making this type of care available to patients at any stage of diagnosis.
Palliative care is not to be confused with hospice that is mainly in the last six months of life when people may want to be home rather than in the hospital. Hospice is run by Medicare. Palliative care is focused on quality of life and elements of comfort for inpatients. “It is a time to prepare for what is to come,” said Wilkins.
By Margaret Bradburn
Of the Independent