Palliative care training helps doctors steer cancer patients away from major surgery

May 22, 2018

Palliative care training helps doctors steer cancer patients away from major surgery


Doctors who don’t have palliative care training are more likely to recommend aggressive surgery for patients with life-limiting diseases, a study suggests.

Researchers surveyed 102 surgeons, oncologists, intensive care specialists, and palliative care doctors near Sacramento, California, asking how they would respond to four different surgical conditions in patients with very advanced cancers.

Overall, regardless of doctors’ age, years of experience or medical specialty, those with less than 40 hours of palliative care training were more likely to recommend major operations as opposed to less aggressive procedures, the study team reported in the journal Surgery.

In one scenario, someone with advanced colon cancer had a bowel obstruction. In another, someone with advanced breast cancer had been injured in a car accident. The other two scenarios involved a patient with late-stage lung cancer and recurrent gastrointestinal bleeding and a patient with advanced prostate cancer and a groin hernia.

In general, there wasn’t much consensus on the treatment decisions, regardless of the doctors’ specialties.

Surgeons in particular reported fewer hours of palliative care training during residency, fellowship and continuing medical education; one in five surgeons reported no experience with palliative care training at all, the authors found.

“We’ve seen a significant proportion of patients who go to the emergency room or intensive care unit with terminal malignancy die in the ICU,” said study coauthor Dr. Richard Bold of the University of California, Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center in Sacramento.

“As cancer becomes a leading cause of death among aging Americans, we’re all going to have to deal with these questions, from family to primary care doctors to specialists,” Bold told Reuters Health by phone.

An overall cultural shift is also changing how surgeons make decisions about procedures near the end of life, said IHPI member, Pasithorn Suwanabol of the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor.

Suwanabol, who wasn’t involved with this study, published a study last month which found that surgeons know about the benefits of palliative care but find it difficult to know when and how to start palliative care conversations and integrate the services. Part of this is not being able to predict what will happen next to the patient, Suwanabol said.

“We need to better predict patient trajectories and outcomes so we can better meet their palliative care needs,” she told Reuters Health by email. “Studies should also measure patient needs from their perspective, not only from the perspective of the surgeons.”

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