By Robert Preidt
Palliative care is team-based specialized treatment aiming to provide patients with relief from the symptoms and stress of serious illness, thereby improving quality of life for patients and their loved ones.
Previous research has found a link between palliative care and lower health care costs, but this is the first study to focus on patients with multiple health issues, the researchers said.
The study included terminally ill cancer patients with a number of coexisting chronic conditions (comorbidities). When they were admitted to the hospital, some were seen by a palliative care team while others received usual care.
Hospital costs for those in the palliative care group were 22 percent lower than for those in the usual care group. Also, costs were up to 32 percent lower for palliative care patients with the greatest number of health problems, according to the study in the January issue of the journal Health Affairs.
"We already know that coordinated, patient-centered palliative care improves care quality, enhances survival, and reduces costs for persons with cancer," said study lead author Dr. R. Sean Morrison, professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
"Our latest research now shows the strong association between cost and the number of co-occurring conditions. Among patients with advanced cancer and other serious illnesses, aggressive treatments are often inconsistent with patients' wishes and are associated with worse quality of life compared to other treatments," Morrison, who is also director of the National Palliative Care Research Center, said in a hospital news release.
It is "imperative" that policymakers act to expand access to palliative care, he added.
The study results suggest other avenues for future research, said study co-author Peter May, a professor at Trinity College Dublin and a former visiting research fellow at Icahn.
"The fact that we found greater cost savings for cancer patients with more comorbidities than for those with fewer comorbidities raises the question of whether similar results would be observed in patients with other serious illnesses and multimorbidity," May said in the news release. "Future research is also needed to determine when in the course of illness palliative care is most cost-effective."
Currently, palliative care teams are available at more than 90 percent of medium and large hospitals in the United States, the researchers said.