The goal of palliative care is to relieve the suffering of patients with serious illness. Regardless of the patient’s prognosis, relief of suffering should be a primary goal for both emergency medicine and palliative care.1 Palliative care is defined by specialty advocates as the physical, spiritual, and psychosocial care given by multiple disciplines to patients and their families who are living with life-threatening illness.2 Although these principles are applicable to all stages of a patient’s illness, a palliative care consultation from the ED is generally considered in the context of previously predicted end-of-life care. Hospice care, a branch of palliative care, is a comprehensive program of palliative treatment that is appropriate when patients with chronic, progressive, and eventually fatal illness are determined to have a life expectancy of 6 months or less. Palliative care is patient centered rather than disease centered. It strives to ensure that the patient or his or her (formal or informal) representatives have chosen realistic goals of care after the patient’s diagnosis, prognosis, and therapeutic options have been considered. This discussion and decision making should take place during a meeting that includes the patient’s healthcare team, surrogate decision maker(s), and those loved ones who are privileged to receive confidential information.
Palliative care is guided by the axiom that distressing symptoms should be treated. It thus provides expert assessment and treatment of symptoms, including pain, dyspnea, and vomiting. Pain is the most common reason for seeking care in the ED, accounting for 58% to 78% of visits in the United States.3-5 Unfortunately, only 60% of patients reporting pain receive pain medications.6 Dyspnea is the seventh most common chief complaint and vomiting the ninth most common chief complaint of patients presenting to the ED.7
Palliative care also trains healthcare professionals to compassionately communicate diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment alternatives and guide the formulation of a therapeutic plan. Palliative care clinicians work to coordinate caregivers and interventions for the patient and family, to make care more effective, and to lessen the stress and obstacles for achieving satisfactory outcomes. Standards for compassionate care spelled out by the Institute of Medicine8 and numerous professional societies require that distressing symptoms be alleviated concurrently with all treatments directed toward the pathology of the medical disorder. The patient or surrogate must play a key role in decisions regarding care.
The first American Board of Medical Specialties board exam, administered in 2008, qualified the first emergency medicine physicians for practice of the subspecialty of hospice and palliative medicine.9
In 2014, the American College of Emergency Physicians reaffirmed its 2008 policy statement: Ethical Issues and End-of-Life Care (Table 300-1).10 In 2011, the Center to Advance Palliative Care (the primary advocate for palliative care in the United States) released its Improving Palliative Care in Emergency Medicine project. This project informs and enables EDs to develop thoughtful, ...