Contrary to popular belief, hospice care seems to prolong the lives of some terminally ill patients by days or even months, according to a recent study funded by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO).
The study, published in the March 2007 issue of the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, showed an average 29-day increase in length of survival for people who received hospice care, compared to those who didn’t.
Researchers studied 4,500 terminally ill patients affected with congestive heart failure or cancer of the breast, colon, lung, pancreas or prostate. Results were broken down by disease and indicated longer survival rates for those receiving hospice care in four of the six categories.
The two areas in which increased survival rate wasn’t seen were breast cancer and prostate cancer; researchers didn’t speculate however about why hospice care might benefit those with one disease more than another.
What is hospice?
Hospice care is a service available to people in the end stages of a terminal disease.
Hospice staff and volunteers coordinate with the patient, physicians and family members to provide day-to-day care and comfort. Services include administering medications, including those to ease suffering; performing personal hygiene tasks and minor medical procedures; and offering compassionate companionship and support. Many hospice services provide support to the patient’s family as well.
In general, hospice patients receive only comfort care and symptom management, not life-prolonging devices or therapies. However, pre-existing feeding tubes are OK and some hospice programs also accept patients who already are vented.
Hospice care often is provided in the home, but can be conducted in hospice centers, hospitals, nursing homes or long-term care facilities.
Cost is covered under Medicare, Medicaid, and most private insurance plans.
Researchers pointed to several factors that may explain their finding that hospice actually prolongs life:
- The risk of overtreatment — such as the administration of aggressive therapies — is decreased for those in an already weakened condition.
- More personalized attention may result in improved monitoring and treatment.
- Hospice care offers a comprehensive approach, focusing on the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs in addition to physical health.
- Family caregivers are offered support and training. Their reduced stress or workload may help patients feel like less of a burden, and so increase their desire to live.
Whatever the reason, the numbers are encouraging for those considering the service for their loved ones.
“There’s an inaccurate perception among the American public that hospice means you’ve given up,” NHPCO President and CEO J. Donald Schumacher said in a press statement. “Those of us who have worked in the field have seen firsthand how hospice can improve the quality of, and indeed prolong the lives of, people receiving care.”