Palliative care, aimed at relieving the symptoms, pain and stress of serious illness, is often utilized only at the very end of life. A new study may lead health care professionals to re-think when palliative care should be initiated.
A study presented at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncologists showed significant benefits to patients when palliative care was begun immediately after a cancer diagnosis. In the study, patients with a diagnosis of advanced cancer were studied in two separate arms. One group started palliative care at once; another group did not begin until three months after their initial diagnosis.
The palliative care protocol consisted of one in person visit with an advanced care nurse and then patients were followed with six structured phone consultations where they were asked about symptoms, quality of life issues and given advice on symptom management and advanced care planning. Both groups of patients were given the same protocol, the only difference being that one group began immediately and the other group delayed palliative care for three months after diagnosis.
In the immediate entry group, the median survival time was substantially longer at 18.3 months versus 11.8 months in the group that delayed starting palliative care. Though this difference was not statistically significant overall, the authors of the study stressed that when palliative care is begun early, it has a better chance of improving the quality of life in cancer patients.
There was no difference between the two groups in terms of hospital stays, ER visits or ICU costs, but at one-year post diagnosis the patients who started care earlier had a significant survival advantage.
The study authors hope this research will result in more oncologists starting their patients on palliative care protocol sooner. While it has always been offered as an end of life treatment plan, the results of this study could greatly benefit patients for a longer period of time and in turn offer them, and their families a more positive way to deal with the stress of a cancer diagnosis. The sooner patients can receive treatment that effectively manages stress and improves quality of life, the better the outcome will be for longer survival times.