Improving Patient Quality of Life and Cancer Outcomes

Palliative care focuses on addressing the stress, pain, fatigue and other symptoms that accompany cancer and other serious illnesses

By Kathryn Borgenicht, Katherine Dietrich, Leah Carlburg and Christopher Jons

This year, roughly 6,100 Montanans will hear the dreaded words, “You have cancer.” In addition to battling their cancer diagnoses, they’ll face many physical and emotional symptoms such as pain, nausea, fatigue, anxiety and fear. Cancer treatment may also cause unwanted side effects. Managing these symptoms simultaneously can be challenging. That’s where palliative care can help.

As palliative care providers from across the state, we work with people battling cancer and other chronic diseases every day. We witness firsthand how a serious illness can impact almost every aspect of a person’s daily life. We’re proud to join the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) and other health organizations in urging Montana’s lawmakers to pass House Bill 285 – the Montana Palliative Care Improvement Act –  to create a statewide palliative care and quality of life advisory council. The advisory council would help assess and make recommendations on how we can improve access to palliative care in our state and educate the public and health care community on palliative care benefits and best practices.

Palliative care focuses on addressing the stress, pain, fatigue and other symptoms that accompany cancer and other serious illnesses. It is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, clergy members and other specialists who work to coordinate a patient’s care and treatment. Palliative care gives patients more control of their treatment, alleviates the burden on caregivers and significantly improves quality of life for patients and their families.

In fact, clinical research from the American Cancer Society demonstrates that patients receiving palliative care spend less time in intensive care, have fewer hospital re-admissions, and generally experience a better quality of life during treatment. Research also shows that when palliative care is used proactively, overall patient costs decrease. And studies have shown that it extends the life of patients.

Public opinion research shows that once people find out about the benefits of palliative care, 92 percent of consumers say they are highly likely to use this care and think it should be available in hospitals nationwide.

While palliative care exists in many Montana hospitals, the lack of understanding about both what it is and when it should be provided remains a major barrier. Many people – both patients and providers – think palliative care is used only as end-of-life care. Palliative care is appropriate at any age and stage of a serious illness. When provided alongside curative treatment for a disease, it can help patients get better faster and easier.

Rural states like Montana face additional challenges. People can travel long distances to see specialists, and some patients even have to seek out-of-state care. These remote distances, coupled with transportation costs, lodging and limited caregiver resources, make proper treatment and follow-up care difficult. With palliative care, health care providers would communicate openly and share information effectively.

In a time when effective pain relief, stress management and emotional support are possible, our lawmakers must prioritize these areas so Montanans with cancer and other chronic illnesses can thrive and live normal lives. By passing House Bill 285, the legislature can help achieve the goal of comprehensive, cost-effective care that improves patient satisfaction and overall health outcomes.

Dr. Kathryn Borgenicht, Bozeman Health; Dr. Katherine Dietrich, St. Vincent Healthcare, Billings; Dr. Leah Carlburg, Kalispell Regional Healthcare; and Dr. Christopher Jons, Providence St. Patrick Hospital, Missoula