Finally, proof that palliative care works…

Dr. Gary Lee (that’s him at the keyboard) came up to me a couple days ago and asked me this:

“Chris, if you had a terminal disease, and you knew there was a drug that would not only make you feel a lot better but also give you three more months with your family and friends, how much would you pay for it?”

The obvious answer is “Everything I’ve got!” Gary’s next sentence was less obvious:
“There already is a treatment like that. We give it away to our patients, and now we can prove it works.”

Gary then shared with me the study in the New England Journal of Medicine that demonstrates the value of palliative care. That’s what Dr. Lee does at VMC, along with Dr. Shoshana Helman and their team. Palliative care, as just reported in the NY Times, “… typically begins with a long conversation about what the patient with a terminal diagnosis wants out of his remaining life. It includes the options any oncologist addresses: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation and their side effects. But it also includes how much suffering a patient wishes to bear, effects on the family, and legal, insurance and religious issues. Teams focus on controlling pain, nausea, swelling, shortness of breath and other side effects; they also address patients’ worries and make sure they have help with making meals, dressing and bathing when not hospitalized.”

So, palliative care isn’t actually a drug or procedure, but rather a better way of thinking about how a patient’s end of life will be for them and those they love. Yes—better, as proven by the study; Patients with lung cancer who received palliative care lived more happily, and actually lived longer.

Doctors Helman and Lee were obviously thrilled at the study’s results, but they weren’t surprised. They’ve been demonstrating it at Valley Medical Center for years, and the VMC Foundation has assisted with grants to expand their palliative care program. Gary and Shoshana are already leading experts in this relatively new field…and now, we’ve got a scientific study to support what they do.

The next step is to ensure palliative care remains in the health care overhaul happening at the federal level. The cries of “death panels” absolutely need to be silenced, and science seems to be the best way to do that.

…not that scientific proof ever throws ideologues off their game. Spread the word about palliative care, because it’s a proven way to improve life and stop thinking of patients as a bunch of symptoms. We’re proud at VMC that our team thinks of patients’ whole lives.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, there’s a reason I posted the photo of Dr. Lee rocking out in our band, Idol Hands. It’s a perfect example of how our MD’s are creative, well-rounded idealists, not just academics in white coats. In fact, it was while setting up for this performance last week that Gary told me about the study. Then we went on to rock the party.

My job? I think I’ll keep it.

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