Celebrating hospice care near Doctor’s Day

When hospice made its way to American shores from the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, the fledgling movement emphasized compassionate bedside nursing care with minimal medical intervention, generally delivered by a doctor retired from another form of medicine.

Fast-forward nearly 50 years, and hospice and palliative care is a well-established subspecialty.

According to the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Care Medicine, more than 7,600 physicians have earned hospice and palliative care certification since 2008, following the same rigorous academic standards as other medical professionals. It is formally recognized and regulated by wide-ranging medical organizations, including the National Institutes of Health, the American Osteopathic Association, and the National Quality Forum.

Hospice and palliative care are also sanctioned by the American Board of Medical Specialties’ 11 primary specialty boards that represent all disciplines, from internal to pediatric, emergency to psychiatric, and radiology to surgical medicine. Like any other specialized field, hospice and palliative care benefit from the same breakthroughs and advancements as other medical disciplines through standardized programs, science-based research, and robust fellowship programs.

Though any doctor can treat the physical symptoms of their patients’ life-limiting conditions, hospice and palliative care physicians take a holistic approach. Often working in conjunction with patients’ primary care doctors, hospice physicians lead a care team of professionals who also address emotional and spiritual suffering, as well as grief, to help patients experience the greatest possible comfort. The care team also extends its support to families and friends who struggle alongside their ailing loved ones.

Among the biggest barriers to patients receiving the full benefit hospice care can provide is the hesitation of some medical professionals to recommend comfort care for their patients when other medical interventions are no longer helpful.

It also stems from the misconception that it is an option only when they become gravely ill. In fact, many patients who are hospice-eligible once curative treatment is no longer effective live fully and comfortably for weeks, months, even years, surrounded by the people and things they love. Hospice and palliative care allow patients to live life with quality and dignity right up until their final moments.

In some cases, patients actually find their health improving under hospice care and recover to the point it is no longer necessary. Each year, 15 percent of all hospice patients nationally are discharged due to their improved prognosis.

Misconceptions about the cost of care creates another barrier for some patients. In reality, hospice and palliative treatment are health care benefits of most private insurance policies, as well as Medicare and Medicaid.

As we approach National Doctor’s Day on March 30, I proudly celebrate my colleagues across Michigan, and the country, who have pursued the specialized training and certification for hospice and palliative care and have committed their careers to the practice full time.

Though it is as challenging as any specialized medicine to practice, there are uniquely rich rewards for us doctors who are privileged to walk beside patients on their end-of-life journeys.

Dr. Michael Paletta is senior vice president of Hospice of Michigan and Arbor Hospice.