Palliative Care Helps Improve Life Quality, Ease Pain of Anyone with Serious Illness

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by Joana Fernandes, PhD |

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Palliative care helps to ease the symptoms of serious illnesses, providing people with cancer and those with other life-altering diseases, like multiple sclerosis (MS) or cystic fibrosis, a better quality of life, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In the study, “Association Between Palliative Care And Patient And Caregiver Outcomes – A Systematic Review And Meta-Analysis,” researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine evaluated the impact of palliative care on life quality, disease symptoms, and patient survival, as well as on outcomes related to caregivers.

Palliative care refers to specialized medical care for people with serious and life-threatening illnesses, and aims to manage symptoms and relieve discomfort and stress, so as to improve life for both patients and caregivers. This type of healthcare can be given by specialized doctors or nurses, or by social workers or other trained specialists, who work together with the patient’s doctor to provide the best support and care. It is often associated with “end of life” care, but it can be given to anyone with a serious illness while the patient is under treatment.

Researchers reviewed 43 trials of palliative care interventions that had followed 12,731 adults (mean age 67) with life-altering illnesses, and 2,479 of their family members serving as caregivers. The team investigated the link between palliative care and three parameters: patients’ quality of life, symptom burden, and survival.

The investigators found that palliative care was associated with improvements in quality of life and symptom burden, but did not improve survival, contrary to what has been suggested by previous studies.

“Taken all together, this is a very compelling message,” the study’s leading author, Dio Kavalieratos, PhD, said in a news release. “People’s quality of life and symptoms improved; their satisfaction with their health care improved — all during what is likely one of the most difficult periods of their lives.”

Researchers also found that palliative care was associated with better advance care planning, better satisfaction with care by both the patient and caregiver, and with lower healthcare utilization.

But other outcomes, such as improvements in patient’s moods and healthcare expenditures, and improvements in the quality of life, mood or burden of the caregiver, were not easy to correlate with palliative care due to what the team described as mixed evidence. The study took a meta-analysis approach, analyzing statistics across trials to determine overall effect.

“In this … analysis, palliative care interventions were associated with improvements in patient [quality of life] and symptom burden,” the authors wrote.

“Historically, palliative care has overwhelmingly focused on individuals with cancer, but anyone with a serious illness, be it cancer, heart failure, multiple sclerosis or cystic fibrosis, deserves high-quality, individualized care that focuses on reducing their suffering and improving their quality of life,” Kavalieratos said. “We need to find ways of integrating palliative care concepts in patients’ usual care experiences so it isn’t a luxury, but a standard part of health care for those living with serious illness.”

Better studies of the benefits and costs of palliative care are also needed, the researchers concluded, investigations “rigorous enough to capture what’s going on at this critical point in people’s lives.”

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