Patients with blood cancers underutilize palliative care



I used to attend the Supportive Care in Oncology Symposium every year, but to my dismay, the American Society for Clinical Oncology stopped hosting the symposium a few years ago. Instead, ASCO now incorporates palliative care research fully into its annual meeting which was held in early June in Chicago. Being integrated into the annual meeting means greater exposure to a broader audience that may not otherwise see this work. In this column, I highlight some presentations that stood out to me.

Palliative care studies for patients with hematologic malignancies

There continues to be low uptake of outpatient palliative care services among patients with hematologic malignancies. Fortunately, there are efforts underway to study the impact of integrating early palliative care into the routine care of hematology patients. In a study presented by Mazie Tsang, MD, a clinical fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers embedded a palliative care nurse practitioner in a hematology clinic and studied the impact this single NP had over 4 years of integration. They found that patients were less likely to be hospitalized or visit the emergency department after integrating the NP. They also found that advance directives were more likely to be completed following NP integration. The results were limited by small sample size and lack of a true control group, but generally trended toward significance when compared with historical controls.

Sarah F. D'Ambruoso, a nurse practitioner at Santa Monica (Calif.) Cancer Care in the UCLA Health System

Sarah F. D'Ambruoso

Other studies highlighted the relatively high symptom burden among patients with hematologic malignancies, such as myeloma, leukemia, and lymphoma. In a study presented by Sarah E. Monick, MD, of the University of Chicago, researchers found that, among adolescents and young adults with hematologic malignancies seen in a clinic where a palliative care provider was embedded, symptom burden was high across the board regardless of where patients were in their disease trajectory or their demographic characteristics. Due to the presence of high symptom burden among adolescents and young adults, the authors suggest that patients undergo screening at every visit and that supportive care be incorporated throughout the patient’s journey.

Kyle Fitzgibbon of the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto shared details of an ongoing multicenter, randomized, controlled, phase 3 trial designed to evaluate the effect of a novel psychosocial/palliative care intervention for patients with acute leukemia hospitalized for induction chemotherapy. The intervention will consist of 8 weeks of psychological support as well as access to palliative care for physical symptoms. Participants will be randomized to receive either intervention or standard of care at the beginning of their hospitalization. Researchers plan to study the impact of the intervention on physical and psychological symptom severity, quality of life, and patient satisfaction at multiple time points. It will be exciting to see the results of this study given that there are very few research clinical trials examining early palliative care with patients who have hematologic malignancies.

Trends in palliative care integration with oncology care

One key trend that I am elated to see is the integration of palliative care throughout the entire patient journey. A secondary analysis of oncology practice data from the National Cancer Institute Community Oncology Research Program found that more than three-quarters of outpatient oncology practices surveyed in 2015 have integrated palliative care inpatient and outpatient services. 36% said they had an outpatient palliative care clinic. More availability of services typically translates to better access to care and improved outcomes for patients, so it is always nice to see these quality metrics continue to move in a positive direction. The analysis was presented by Tiffany M. Statler, PA, of Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, Winston Salem, N.C.

It turns out that patients are also advocating for integrated palliative care. A unique qualitative project brought together patient advocates from several countries to hold a moderated discussion about quality of life and treatment side effects. The advocates focused on the importance of maintaining independence with activities of daily living as a significant quality of life goal, particularly as treatments tend to cause cumulative mental and physical fatigue. They highlighted the importance of palliative care for helping achieve quality of life goals, especially in latter part of the disease trajectory. The project was presented by Paul Wheatley-Price, MD, of the Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre, University of Ottawa.

In 2010, a study by Temel and colleagues was published, finding that patients with metastatic non–small cell lung cancer who received palliative care early had significant improvements in quality of life and mood as compared with patients who received standard care. It was a landmark study and is frequently cited. The Temel group reports on the planning process for a new randomized controlled trial of palliative care with metastatic lung cancer patients who have targetable mutations. With next generation sequencing of tumor tissue, many patients with metastatic lung cancer are identified at diagnosis as having a targetable mutation. As such, they may receive a targeted therapy as first-line treatment instead of traditional chemotherapy. This has lengthened survival considerably, but the disease remains incurable and ultimately fatal, and the trajectory can resemble a roller-coaster ride.

In this new randomized controlled trial, patients in the experimental arm will receive four monthly visits with a palliative care clinician who is specially trained to help patients manage the uncertainties of prolonged illness. The researchers plan to evaluate patients’ distress levels and prognostic awareness, as well as evidence of advance care planning in the chart.

And, a study presented by Roberto Enrique Ochoa Planchart, MD, of Chen Medical Centers, Miami, found that when primary care providers used declines in functional status as a trigger for referring advanced cancer patients to palliative care, those patients were less likely to be admitted to the hospital near the end of life, translating to an 86% cost savings. This study reiterated the importance of partnering with a patient’s nononcologic providers, that is, primary care and palliative care clinicians to improve outcomes at the end of life.

Use of technology in palliative care

Numerous studies were reported on innovative uses of technology for various functions relevant to palliative care. They included everything from capturing patient-reported outcomes through patient-facing smartphone apps, to using artificial intelligence and/or machine learning to build prognostication tools and to generate earlier referrals to palliative care. There were presentations on the use of online tools to assist with and document goals of care conversations.

As a clinician who is always looking for new ways to capture patient symptom information and motivate patients to engage in advance care planning, I am excited about the prospect of using some of these tools in real time.

Ms. D’Ambruoso is a hospice and palliative care nurse practitioner for UCLA Health Cancer Care, Santa Monica, Calif.

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