Enhancing the Value Proposition: Embedding Palliative Care Services in the Oncology Setting

By Susan van der Sommen, MHA, CMPE, FACHE

nurse and patient holding hands 2In a feature article in the January/February edition of Oncology Issues, Patsy Astarita, LCSW-C, OSW-C, and Michelle Abramowski, MSN, CRNP, share how the Kaufman Cancer Center in north central Maryland developed a palliative care program from the inside out. Though the existing infrastructure of the Kaufman Cancer Center included some palliative care resources, their challenges in developing the program were similar to those faced by other cancer programs: a dearth of existing funding, a navigation program focused on newly diagnosed patients rather than those at the end of life, and limited outpatient palliative care resources, among others.

Despite these challenges, the interdisciplinary care team at Kaufman Cancer Center garnered the requisite leadership support, performed a literature search of evidence-based best practices, and, building upon their existing resources, developed a palliative care program that has met its stated goals: reducing hospital use of chemotherapy at the end of life, while increasing early referrals to hospice and advance care planning. In 2016 Kaufman Cancer Center was recognized with an ACCC Innovator Award for their forward-thinking efforts expanding access to palliative care.

Often confused with hospice (utilized for end-of-life care), palliative care services are intended to provide a patient-centered approach to anticipating—and  thus reducing—pain and suffering, while improving quality of life by addressing the physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs of the patient and family. According to a study performed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Ad Hoc Palliative Care Expert Panel, patients with advanced cancer should receive “dedicated palliative care services” within eight weeks of diagnosis, offered concurrently with active treatment. The same study suggests that palliative care services offered early in the treatment process promote clarification of treatment goals, assistance with medical decision-making, enhanced care coordination, and a reduction in stress for the patient, family, and caregivers. Another benefit of introducing palliative care services early in the treatment process is cost reduction and savings through reduced hospital readmissions and emergency room use in the last 30 days of life.

To streamline their processes, the team at Kaufman Cancer Center developed a palliative care screening tool very similar to the psychosocial distress screening tool that has become familiar to most cancer programs in the United States. The five-question palliative care screening tool, now embedded in their EHR, has a 13-point scale that assists the care team in determining if the patient is appropriate for a palliative care referral. Embedding these services into their workflow is further enhanced by a weekly Palliative Care Conference during which team members discuss and review cases to determine next steps for patients and their family and caregivers. Also included in their ongoing programmatic development is a resiliency program to help support their staff as they work with patients during vulnerable times in their lives.

When working to initiate or expand palliative care services in the outpatient setting, most cancer programs face a host of challenges: lack of resources and/or budget; multiple, and sometimes conflicting, priorities; disparate and often disconnected programs. Despite these challenges, the team at the Kaufman Cancer Center did what cancer programs do best: put the patient at the center of their planning processes and developed a program that has improved care and satisfaction while reducing costs.


Contributing blogger Susan van der Sommen, MHA, CMPE, FACHE, is Executive Director, DSRIP, Bassett Healthcare Network, and Chair of the ACCC Editorial Committee.

Learn more about the ACCC Innovator Awards program here.

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