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New year brings new health choices to consider

It’s a new year, and families are facing some serious decisions about quality of life.

For some, it may mean a new gym membership. For others, it might mean looking for ways to ease the pain of a terminally ill family member through a regimen of palliative care.

This year, more physicians will be doing advanced care planning. If you have Medicare, your doctor will be reimbursed for an appointment to discuss the type of life you want when ill.

Palliative care may be part of that conversation. This is medical care that aims to relieve patients from the symptoms, pain and stresses of advanced illness — whatever the diagnosis. The goal is to improve quality of life and relieve suffering for both patient and family. Palliative care is appropriate at any age and at any stage in an advanced illness and curative treatment doesn’t stop.

Palliative care is predicated on the patient making choices and knowing factors of his or her disease, and its symptoms, trajectory and prognosis. During the conversation your physician explains the disease, different types of treatment available, their success rates and side effects, the impact on quality of life, and the various documents to consider to make sure your wishes are clearly stated.

“Palliative care is not about giving up,” said board certified palliative care physician Tim Ihrig, medical director for palliative care at Trinity Regional Medical Center in Iowa. “In fact, studies with cancer patients show that those who receive true palliative care have less depression, undergo less chemotherapy, spend less time in the hospital, have a higher quality of life, and eventually, are more likely to die at home on hospice. In addition, they live longer than without true palliative care.

“Palliative care puts the patient in the center of the healthcare hub, encouraging the patient to call the shots on the goals of care and intensity of care — exemplifying true informed consent,” said Ihrig.

Most of us prefer to be in the driver’s seat when dealing with a serious disease like cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cardiac disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or HIV/AIDS.

We all need to educate ourselves on palliative care. Not all physicians are familiar with it. Certainly not all doctors focus their attention on palliative care or are board certified in the specialty. You may need to search to find the right doctor with whom to have that talk mentioned earlier.

Some hospices have palliative care programs. Make sure the one you contact has board-certified palliative care physicians and staff, and that the program is distinct from hospice. Not all hospices work this way.

You can learn more by searching “hospice vs. palliative care” online. Or, check out Ihrig’s TED Talk. He’s a national expert on the topic and has helped us design our own program.