Why consults don’t happen


Today our team saw an 89-year-old gentleman on the hospitalist service with dementia, heart failure, atrial fibrillation, chronic kidney disease, and problems falling. His last known fall was less than 3 months ago and resulted in a broken hip requiring surgical intervention. This was his fourth hospitalization in 6 months, yet it was the first time he was seen by our service.

The frequency at which palliative care (PC) consults are ordered in a particular hospital varies widely. Some reasons for this are not easy fixes – PC is not available in each hospital (as was the case in two of this gentleman’s four hospitalizations), many PC teams are available only Monday-Friday, and patient volumes within a hospital ebb and flow with much less predictability than the tides.

However, some of the reasons are amenable to change. These might include the particular group of hospitalists, or one attending physician, utilizing PC consults less frequently than another. Or it may simply be that the connection was not made between the patient’s experience and the usefulness of an early PC consults. Screening tools are one method of decreasing variability in PC involvement as well as increasing the appropriateness of our service for a particular patient.

There are quite a few palliative care screening tools available. Many of them focus on what most of us would expect, which are the most common diagnoses we see (late-stage cancer, HF, cirrhosis, end-stage renal disease, dementia, etc.). Multiple studies have estimated that mature PC programs in large hospitals are consulted on 1%-2% of live discharges. However, we estimate that more than 10% of these discharged patients have palliative needs that go unmet. While it is true that we wish PC could be involved in all of these lives, this large number of people who spend time in the hospital with these diagnoses, coupled with a national shortage of PC providers, translates into an unbalanced equation.

Rather than looking at a specific diagnosis, we suggest incorporating inquiries on the presence of "palliative care–related problems." While these might require more thought or investigation into a patient’s situation, we find them to be more fruitful than using diagnosis alone.

Some examples? Mismatch between the expectations of the medical team vs. patient/family when it comes to prognosis or the goals of care would be one of them. Another might be persistent uncontrolled symptoms despite usual medical management. Family members disagreeing or demonstrating concerns about the goals of care is still another.

Having used various screening tools in multiple hospitals and clinical settings, we suggest the following considerations in setting up your own:

Stakeholder management: The right services and staff need to agree on this being a way to improve quality of care (we always provide an "opt-out" option for those who don’t want us involved for some reason).

Start small: Implement these on one unit at a time or limit the diagnoses to one or two conditions only. You can make the criteria less stringent if the PC team’s bandwidth is not too narrow.

Be flexible: Even by starting small, there will be times that the PC teams are overwhelmed on a particular day leaving the occasional patient who meets criteria unseen. If the consult is urgent, a phone call is appropriate so that an assumption isn’t made that the screening tool will catch 100% of the patients.

Track data: When using these tools, palliative care teams have been able to show things such as improved Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems survey results and decreased readmissions. Demonstrate what you’re doing for your institution so that you can expand the units or patients served.

PC screening tools are an effective way to decrease variability and improve quality. For examples of tools that we use, please get in touch. Find our contact info and read earlier columns at ehospitalistnews/Palliatively.

Dr. Bekanich and Dr. Fredholm are codirectors of Seton Palliative Care, part of the University of Texas Southwestern Residency Programs in Austin.

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