Spirituality in Palliative Care and Other Topics

Today at the AAHPM Assembly I attended four educational sessions. The one that made the biggest impact on me was the presentation entitled “None of Your Darn Business! Taking a Spritual History While Preserving Your Professional Boundaries, Your Rapport, and Your Pride,” by Tim Ford, MA MS CT at VCU Massey Cancer Center, Richmond, VA. Before I talk a little bit more about this, I also wanted to list the other educational sessions and what I took from them.

1. “Is it Futile to Discuss Futility? A review of the Medical Literature and Legal Precedent.” Futility is a difficult word to define and means many things to different clinicians. Many advocate because it is so politically charged that we get rid of it. One physician suggested that Futility is the other “F” word. Basically, there is much evidence from previous cases and court rulings that physicians are hardly ever successfully sued for a wrongful death when non-beneficial life sustaining treatments are withdrawn. I contended that many physicians do not want to withdraw care when a family “wants everything done,” due to the fear of litigation. Many physicians would rather practice against their better judgement and subject patients to things they disagree with because this is “what the family wants,” and they do not want to anger the family or make them feel that they are not appropriately taking care of the patient. It’s much easier to continue to “do” things to the patient than to discuss this with the family in an open and honest way. Nadia Tremonti, MD, Wayne State University and Children’s Hospital of Michigan made a good point about this. She stated that as physicians we have a certain obligation to the patient and the profession despite the fear of litigation. We understand as physicians that we have a certain responsibility to the patient and by choosing the easy way out we compromise ourselves and the integrity of medicine. Overall, a great presentation and much discussion afterward.

2. Paper Sessions. I attended the paper sessions covering the Palliative Care in the ICU. The take home message from all three papers is that Palliative Care can be beneficial to patients in the ICU setting. Some crossover points in all three papers are the following. Palliative Care in the ICU:
a. Showed a decreased length of stay in the ICU
b. Increased DNR’s
c. Decreased utilization of more “aggressive” measures
d. Improved relationships between the ICU staff and the Palliative Care team
e. Increased support for the ICU staff by the Palliative Care team
f. Improved physician understanding of the role of Palliative Care in the ICU and increased utilization
g. Increased cost avoidance for the hospital showing that Palliative Care programs are beneficial, self sustaining and enforce the “Mission” of most hospitals
h. Improved patient and family satisfaction scores
i. Other…(mostly stuff I forgot)

3. “Hospice and Nonhospice Models of Palliative Care Delivery.” The bit of information that stood out to me in this session, is that some SNF’s (Skilled Nursing Facilities) are beginning to implement a “Home Grown,” palliative care service on site. Advantages and disadvantages were discussed for this type of model and I had never really thought of this as an option. I heard of the other two models in which outside Palliative Care consultants are called in to do consults or a local hospice providing non-hospice palliative care to nursing home patients, but I was not aware of the “Home Grown” model. Lots of good discussion and it will be very interesting to see how this unfolds in the coming years.

4. Last but not least, “None of Your Darn Business! Taking a Spritual History While Preserving Your Professional Boundaries, Your Rapport, and Your Pride.” This session impacted me the most because as a fellowship trained Palliative Care Physician I had always advocated for spiritual care as an important piece of patient care, but never truly appreciated the spiritual care component until this presentation. I felt like my eyes were opened and I had a deeper understanding of spirituality in palliative care. How can one presentation make such an impact. Well, he presented several points that I had not considered and he also introduced the “Transdisciplinary” (TD) approach to palliative care rather than the more traditional “Interdisciplinary” (ID) approach. In the traditional ID approach each member of the team evaluates the patient within their “nich” of practice and shares that information with the team. By contrast, the TD approach has each member providing care in all 4 domains (physical, psychological, social and spiritual) as a “generalist” but provides “specialist” care in their area of expertise. For example, in the process of doing a full consultation with a patient, I may sit down and listen to their story (presence, connection) and learn what provides “meaning” in their life while obtaining the history of the patient. In fact Tim Ford advocates that much of the spiritual history can be taken from the patient just by listening to their story and in the process of doing the consultation without having go through a checklist. In this way I am a “generalist,” for the “specialist” (chaplain) to follow up after this information is shared with the chaplain. In the same manner he stated that he would not ignore soiled linens if he went to see a patient or ignore their excruciating pain. In fact he stated that he may not be able to address their spiritual pain if the physical pain is not adequately addressed. I have often seen this on my hospice team. I will get an occasional phone call from the chaplain stating a patient he was visiting was having increased pain. He has been trained in basic pain management to a level that he can relay pertinent information that I will use for appropriate follow up care. In this manner he is being the “generalist” and I followup as the “specialist.” I feel that this model engenders the true definition of holistic medicine. And lastly he reinforced the power of “presence.” The power of “just being” present can make a significant impact on a patient or family. I am thankful I attended this session and will take a new found interest and zeal back to my practice in regards to spiritual care.

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6 thoughts on “Spirituality in Palliative Care and Other Topics

  1. I read your article. I am an EPEC, EPEC-O, EPEC-EM and ELNEC trainer. This past year I have been part of the ACE Project, an NCI funded project at the City of Hope which brings together social workers, psychologists and clery (a group of 75 for each of four years) to help them deveop, implement and advocate for palliative care programs in their instiutions and communities. I am doing a project to advocate to improve Spiritual Care as part of pallaitive care,. This includes training community clergy and chaplains in Palliative and EOL Care. It also includes proviiding training in spiritual care to palliative care professionals. I have developed a Spirituality in Palliative and EOL Care Curriculum which can be self-taught or use to teach groups. It is availableas a download from Growth House for free at: http://www.growthhouse.org/spirit.

  2. I was really interested in your thoughts about being able to take a Spiritual History, and not being able to address spiritual pain without adequate relief of physical pain.

    • Linsey, thank you for the great question and I apologize it took me this long to answer. Of course it depends on the circumstance, however, you are correct. If the patient is in excruciating pain, I cannot do a good history including a physical, psychological, social and spiritual history (I call it PPSS history), the pain must be managed first. If the pain is managed, even if not at goal, but I’m able to have a conversation with the patient, I will obtain my PPSS history and assist in addressing their needs. What I have experienced is a patients pain may be difficult to manage to an acceptable level if there is psychological, social and as we are discussing spiritual pain. Dr. Dame Cicly Saunders, the founder of St. Christopher’s Hospice, described “Total Pain.” It’s a pain that encompasses the 4 domains (Physical, Psychological, Social and Spiritual. It may take an improvement of patients spiritual pain before we see an improvement of their physical pain.

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