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Help When You Need It Most

Consider this predicament: You have been diagnosed with a serious illness — lung cancer, perhaps, or maybe a debilitating heart condition. You’re receiving the best medical care possible, but you still find yourself overwhelmed by your symptoms and side effects from your treatment as you and your family struggle to navigate the healthcare system.

That’s where palliative care can come in. Palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life of a patient and his or her family by preventing or treating the pain, symptoms, and stress of any serious illness. These ailments can include cancer at any stage; brain illness, such as stroke, ALS, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease; and heart failure and other heart conditions. The services are ordered at the same time as treatment and can begin at diagnosis. (Hospice care, in contrast, is ordered when a patient is not expected to live more than six months and treatment has ceased.)

Palliative care also includes a wide range of services beyond pain management, from providing information about making difficult choices for medical care to finding faith-based counseling to assistance with advance care planning. “We’re looking at a patient’s physical, social, spiritual, and emotional health,” explains Ellen Brown, MD, a physician who is part of El Camino Hospital’s palliative care team and chief medical director of Pathways Hospice. The El Camino Hospital team also includes nurse practitioners, nurses and clinical nurse specialists, and a social worker. “We’re providing extra help to the patient as well to their family and other caregivers,” says Dr. Brown.

That all-encompassing care begins with what Dr. Brown calls “goals of care conversation.” It’s a team of people who are listening to make sure a patient’s getting the care he or she wants, she says.

And it works — research shows that patients who receive palliative care early in their illness have fewer symptoms, report a higher quality of life, and experience better outcomes.

“In those conversations, we find out what’s important for us to address — what their goals and values are, what makes their life worth living,” Dr. Brown says. “It can be quite powerful. Feedback from patients and their families is positive.”

To receive palliative care at El Camino Hospital, patients must be referred by a doctor. Learn more about our Palliative Care program.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2016 edition of the El Camino Hospital Health Beat magazine.