Can You See Me?

Portrait of Dr. Sharon B. Hamill
Dr. Sharon Hamill

As individuals and organizations committed to palliative care education and services, we know that there is a great deal of misunderstanding about palliative care in our communities. People often confuse palliative care with hospice and many believe that palliative care is only for those who are terminally ill. These misunderstandings can lead to a rejection of palliative treatments that would be incredibly beneficial to patients and their families, and significantly increase their quality of life. Consequently, healthcare professionals find themselves searching for meaningful ways to explain what is meant by palliative care. We rely on phrases such as “whole person care,” “patient supportive care,” “symptom reduction” and “quality of life” in our efforts to promote understanding. In fact, in a recent Journal of Palliative Medicine article by Back and colleagues, the authors provide great tips on how healthcare professionals can communicate about palliative care in our messages to the public. However, in our efforts to address these misunderstandings among community members, we may be overlooking a critical need to better educate healthcare professionals about palliative care, including those on palliative care teams. If we don’t, we may fail to see patients who should be offered palliative care services, but are not.

Serving All Who Would Benefit From Palliative Care

Just as palliative care has sometimes been seen as inextricably connected to hospice, beliefs about what constitutes a serious illness/ condition have typically been linked to illnesses such as cancer or heart disease. By having such a narrow focus, we may miss the opportunities to serve patients and families who most definitely would benefit from palliative care. Consider the following examples:

  • A car accident victim who becomes paralyzed. This life-changing event will undoubtedly involve significant healthcare treatment for the remainder of the person’s life.
  • A prostate cancer patient who, after initial cancer treatment, has an excellent prognosis. Although the cancer is not likely to be terminal, the patient is told that there will be significant changes that might impact quality of life.
  • An elderly person who has multiple health problems such as kidney disease, diabetes and dementia.

In each of these cases, palliative care teams were available but for various reasons did not provide services. In the first case, the team “missed it” because, as they explained, they are used to looking for diagnoses such as cancer, not car accidents. In the second case, no contact was made because the person wasn’t terminal and the healthcare provider may have been reserving limited palliative care funds for more serious cases. And in the third case, tendencies to focus on the elderly patient’s chronic health issues clouded their view of the whole person and how these comorbidities conspire to reduce quality of life. These examples underscore the need not only to educate the public, but to continue efforts to educate current and future healthcare professionals so that we may see these invisible patients and their families.

Our Commitment to Palliative Care Education

The CSU Shiley Haynes Institute for Palliative Care enthusiastically embraces our commitment to the education of (1) current healthcare professional through our continuing education programs (2) future healthcare professionals via our work with campus partners and faculty in the CSU system, and (3) the community, through the work that our campus partners do to address their community needs within their particular geographic region. Our goal? To make palliative care available to anyone who is suffering from a serious illness, and that includes those patients who may be invisible because their illnesses/conditions don’t present in the “typical” way. We believe that by providing education, and therefore enhancing understanding of serious illness, we truly can change healthcare for the better.

We invite you to enhance your own education about palliative care by attending our National Symposium for Academic Palliative Care Education and Research February 8–⁠9, 2024 at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Mission Bay San Diego. Pre-symposium workshops, including topics such as wellness for healthcare providers and how to integrate research into practice, will be offered on February 7, 2024.

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