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Palliative, hospice care lacking among dying cancer patients, Stanford researcher finds

Medical societies, including the American Society of Clinical Oncology, recommend that patients with advanced cancer receive palliative care soon after diagnosis and receive hospice care for at least the last three days of their life. Yet major gaps persist between these recommendations and real-life practice, a new study shows.

Risha Gidwani, DrPH, a health economist at Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Economics Resource Center and a consulting assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and her colleagues examined care received by all veterans over the age of 65 with cancer who died in 2012, a total of 11,896 individuals.

The researchers found that 71 percent of veterans received hospice care, but only 52 percent received palliative care. They also found that exposure to hospice care differed significantly between patients treated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and those enrolled in Medicare. In addition, many patients who received palliative care received it late in their disease’s progression rather than immediately following diagnosis, as recommended by ASCO.

Gidwani is the lead author of the study, which will be published online in the Journal of Palliative Medicine. The senior author is Vincent Mor, PhD, a professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown University.

Differences between hospice, palliative care

Hospice and palliative care are often confused, but they are two distinct services, Gidwani explained. Palliative care is intended to alleviate symptoms and improve quality of life, and is appropriate for all patients with serious illness, not just those who are at the end of life. Conversely, hospice care is end-of-life care, which can also provide social support for family members. Physicians can recommend hospice care only if they believe the patient has fewer than 180 days to live.

“The main lesson learned is we need to improve exposure to palliative care, both in terms of how many patients receive it and when they receive it,” Gidwani said. The team’s analysis of palliative care focused on care provided by the VA because palliative care is not coded consistently in Medicare. However, the researchers could examine hospice care in both environments. When they compared the timing and provision of hospice care between patients treated by the VA and those who received care paid for by Medicare, they discovered differences that could not be explained by cancer types. For example, patients receiving VA care were less likely to receive hospice care for the minimum recommended three days compared with those in Medicare or in other contracted care paid for by VA. VA patients first received hospice care a median of 14 days before death, compared with patients in VA-contracted care who entered hospice a median of 28 days before death.

“Ideally, there shouldn’t be any difference in timing of this care,” Gidwani said. “Patients should receive a service based on their clinical need, not due to health-care system factors.”