Sunday, September 9, 2012

Is Your PCP A Palliative Care Practicioner?

I wouldn't call myself a palliative care expert.  I kind of happened into the job.  The nursing home had a need, and the local hospice/palliative care program didn't have the available staff.  I had always been good at handling end of life and pain issues, so I stepped up.  Of course, there are finer points that I could have learned in a fellowship program.  I don't want to pretend that my qualifications are anything other than what they are.

But one must beg the question.  Why aren't all internists and family physicians palliative care practiticioners?  Don't we strive each day to alleviate the pain and suffering that walks into our exam rooms?  Does it matter whether the cause is a broken arm or a metastatic cancer?  And since when do we farm out end of life discussions to someone else?  Someone who likely doesn't have a longstanding preexisting relationship the way we do. 

Primary care has become a conveyor belt.  We are no longer the chief operating officers.  We have become the chief test orderer, chief prescription writer, and chief specialist consulter. 

I don't think this is the way we planned it.  We never wanted to hand over our autonomy.  But difficult things take time.  Overrun by an ever decreasing portion of the financial pot, and consumed with the moment to moment needs of documentation, most PCPs learned to survive by increasing throughput.  Skimp.  Delegate.  Move'em in and move'em out.

We let someone else handle the time consuming difficult conversations because we couldn't afford to do it ourselves anymore.

So what is the most important job of a palliative care specialist?  In my opinion, it's spending time with patients and families.  Real time, where long drawn out conversations take place on ethereal topics such as quality of life, individual choices, and plans for the future.

And of course we also talk about management of pain.

I tell my patients that they have other doctors to worry about their heart failure, cancer, and COPD.  I come to discuss their hopes and fears.

I have no other interest than their well being,

regardless of our health care systems current state of disease.

1 comment:

older + wiser said...

What an interesting question you have raised. My primary care doc has a background in palliative care. It's actually one of the reasons why I chose him. His interest in this area seemed revealing of where his values lie and the approach he brings to patient care. I've found him to be respectful, a good listener and attuned to overall quality of life - not that other physicians can't be all these things, but he seems to have cultivated it to a greater degree.