For me, the words "palliative care" bring to mind a picture of a patient suffering from incurable cancer, perhaps one that has spread to the bone or brain. Avoiding death from cancer, even via screening tests or therapies that increase the risk of death from other causes (thus providing no overall health benefit) is a reason that physicians sometimes cite for continuing cancer screening long beyond what guidelines recommend. Clinicians may be less likely to view patients with non-cancer diagnoses, such as end-stage heart disease, as potentially eligible for palliative or hospice care, Dr. Marc Kaprow wrote in a 2010 editorial in American Family Physician. In a 2013 editorial, Drs. Rebecca McAteer and Caroline Wellbery encouraged readers to take a broader view of this underutilized service:
Palliative care improves the quality of life for patients with a life-threatening illness and for their families. It aims to relieve suffering by identifying, assessing, and treating pain and other physical, psychosocial, and spiritual problems. Palliative care can be provided whether an illness is potentially curable, chronic, or life-threatening; is appropriate for patients with noncancer diagnoses; and can be administered in conjunction with curative-aimed therapies at any stage of the illness.
Heart failure provides a good example of a condition that benefits from palliative care, especially in its advanced stages. Although increasing resources have been devoted to preventing heart failure readmissions, palliative care interventions remain poorly integrated despite the downward disease trajectory that nearly all patients experience. A 2009 review in Circulation concluded that palliative care improved patient and family satisfaction; facilitated communication between patients and health professionals; increased access to community support services; and was associated with a greater likelihood of patients dying at home. It also produced significant cost savings from fewer invasive end-of-life interventions and hospitalizations.
A more recent review in BMJ summarized the past 5 years of medical literature on palliative care in heart failure. Common symptoms that palliative care can address effectively include pain, breathlessness, fatigue, and depression. Older adults with heart failure have 4-5 comorbidities on average and are more likely to experience frailty than the general population. As rising numbers of these patients receive implanted cardioverter defibrillators and left ventricular assist devices, device deactivation is rarely discussed even when patients become critically ill. The American Heart Association encourages scheduling an "annual heart failure review" to provide time for shared decision-making around these topics and to assure that treatment intensity and future plans are aligned with patients' goals and preferences.