Monday, June 8, 2015

Physician characteristics are the strongest predictor of whether a patient will be referred to hospice care

New research from Brigham and Women's Hospital finds that physician characteristics are the strongest predictor of whether a patient will be referred to hospice care.

Individual physicians are widely believed to influence the kind of care their patients receive at the end of life, but to date, there is little scientific evidence to support this belief. New research from Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) indicates that the individual physician a patient sees is the strongest known predictor of whether or not he or she will enroll in hospice care, outweighing other known drivers such as geographic location, patient age, race and comorbidities.

These findings are published in the June 2015 issue of Health Affairs.

"We found that the physician a patient sees is the single most important predictor we know of whether or not that patient enrolls in hospice care," said Ziad Obermeyer, MD, a physician researcher in the Department of Emergency Medicine at BWH, Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and lead author of the paper. "This new information provides a clear policy target for improving and advancing the quality of care for patients at the end of their lives."

Researchers used a nationally representative Medicare sample to identify people with a poor-prognosis cancer diagnosis who would have been eligible for hospice care before they died, using a palliative care screening algorithm from a large cancer center, from 2006-2011. The sample included 198,948 patients who, on average, were 78 years-old, 88 percent white and 52 percent male. The 66 percent who enrolled in hospice were more likely to be female, white and live in ZIP codes with higher median incomes, when compared to patients not enrolled in hospice.

Researchers calculated the proportion of a physician's patients that were enrolled in hospice care, as a measure of their propensity to refer their patients to hospice. After controlling for patient, hospital, and geographic factors that predict hospice enrollment, they found that patients would be 27 percent more likely to enroll in hospice if they saw a physician in the top 10 percent of hospice use, compared to a physician in the bottom 10 percent. Additionally, researchers report that large numbers of cancer patients in this cohort were seen in a relatively small group of physicians.

"Our data show that about 10 percent of physicians cared for about half of all patients. This suggests that we can target a small group of physicians with interventions geared towards physician specialty and how often their patients enroll in hospice to improve end of life care," Obermeyer said.

Researchers found that regional factors, greater comorbidity and physician specialty were all significantly associated with the likelihood of hospice enrollment, which generally increased over time. They also noted a new, albeit small effect on the likelihood of hospice enrollment: physicians associated with for profit hospitals were less likely to have patients enroll when compared to physicians affiliated with non-profit hospitals. Obermeyer suggests that further research exploring this link is warranted.

"As an emergency physician, I am often the first person to ask patients about what kind of care they want at the end of their life. In these situations, patients and their families often have only hours to make difficult and complex decisions," said Obermeyer. "As physicians, we need to have these conversations earlier. We need to know what our patients really want at the end of their lives. We need to remove the barriers to having these discussions and give our patients the care they actually want."

Implementing earlier expert palliative care decision making and treatment results in significantly lower costs

Researchers at Trinity College Dublin and Mount Sinai in New York have just published new research which for the first time provides strong evidence on the economic benefits of early palliative care intervention for people with an advanced cancer diagnosis. Their findings were published today in the highly esteemed international peer reviewed Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Previous research has shown the clinical benefits of early palliative care, but this new study robustly demonstrated how early access to expert palliative care decision making resulted in very significant cost reductions of up to 24%. The intervention reduced both the length and intensity of hospital stay for patients with advanced cancer.

The researchers from Trinity's Centre for Health Policy and Management and Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine, led by Peter May, HRB Economics of Cancer Fellow at Trinity, studied over 1000 patients' pathways of care in five major US hospitals and looked at costs associated with their care based on whether they saw a specialist palliative care consultation team or received standard hospital care.

They found that an intervention within six days was estimated to reduce costs by 14% compared to no intervention, and an intervention within two days led to a 24% reduction in cost of hospital stay.

Lead author of the study, Peter May from Trinity said: "Despite the known clinical benefits of earlier palliative care, there was little evidence on the association between treatment timing and economic benefits. Our findings show that alongside proven clinical benefits and outcomes for patients and their families there are also cost savings for the health system; a very important consideration in the context of an aging population and changing patterns of disease."

"It is also important to recognise that palliative care is not only for patients at end of life but can have substantial benefits for many patients living with serious illness. We will now look to apply our research findings to the Irish setting. Across Ireland there are excellent palliative care services for people living and dying with serious illness but there remains a high level of unmet need. High quality research is essential to improving understanding of the potential benefits of palliative care for patients and their families, and for the wider health system."

In this study the specialist palliative care consultation was conducted with a specialist-led interdisciplinary team that assists in the treatment of seriously ill patients through identification and treatment of pain and other symptoms, clarifying treatment options, establishing goals of care and advance plans, and helping patients and family members select treatments that match their goals.

Usual care comprised each individual hospital and service approach to routine assessment of pain and other symptoms, function, nutrition, sleep and emotional concerns.