From the AGA Journals

Survey: Palliative care blocked by many barriers in end-stage liver disease



Hepatologists and gastroenterologists see multiple and substantial barriers to the use of palliative care in patients with end-stage liver disease, results of a recent survey show.


Cultural factors, unrealistic expectations of the patient, lack of reimbursement, and competing demands for physicians’ time were some of the barriers to palliative care cited most frequently in the survey, said the researchers, in their report on the survey results that appears in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Moreover, most responding physicians said they felt end-of-life advance care planning discussions take place too late in the course of illness, according to Nneka N. Ufere, MD, of the Gastrointestinal Unit, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and co-authors of the report.

“Multiple interventions targeted at patients, caregivers, institutions, and clinicians are needed to overcome barriers to improve the delivery of high-quality palliative and end-of-life care for patients with end-stage liver disease,” the researchers said.

Specialty palliative care can improve quality of life for patients with life-limiting conditions such as end-stage liver disease, which is associated with poor quality of life and a median survival of just two years without liver transplant, the authors said.

Advance care planning, in which patients discuss goals and care preferences in light of the expected course of illness, was a “critical component” of palliative care that can improve the quality of end-of-life care, Dr. Ufere and co-authors said.

Unfortunately, palliative care planning services are underutilized in end-stage liver disease, studies show, while rates of timely advance care planning discussions are low.

To find out why, Dr. Ufere and colleagues asked 1,238 physicians to fill out a web-based questionnaire designed to assess their perceptions of barriers to use of palliative care and barriers to timely advance care planning discussions. A total of 396 physicians (32%) completed the survey between February and April 2018.

Sixty percent were transplant hepatologists, and 79% of the survey participants said they worked in a teaching hospital, according to Dr. Ufere and co-authors, who added that no respondents had formal palliative care training.

Almost all respondents (95%) agreed that centers providing care for end-stage liver disease patients should have palliative care services, and most (86%) said they thought such patients would benefit from palliative care earlier in the course of disease.

While most (84%) agreed that a hepatologist was the best provider to discuss advance care planning with the patient, only about one-quarter (27%) said the hepatologist was best suited to provide palliative care, while most (88%) said the palliative care specialist was best for that role.

When asked about patient and caregiver barriers, nearly all respondents (95%) agreed that cultural factors that influenced palliative care perception was an issue, while 93% said patients’ unrealistic expectations was an issue.

Clinician barriers that respondents perceived included competing demands for clinicians’ time, cited by 91%, fear that palliative care might destroy the patient’s hope, cited by 82%, and the misperception that palliative care starts when active treatment ends, cited by 81%.

One potential solution to the competing demands on clinicians’ time would be development of “collaborative care models” between palliative care and hepatology services, according to Dr. Ufere and co-authors.

“Outpatient specialty palliative care visits, ideally temporally coordinated with the hepatology visits, can play a role not only in attending to symptom assessment and ACP, but also in addressing important psychosocial aspects of care, such as patient coping and well-being,” they said in their report on the survey.

Institutional barriers of note included limited reimbursement for time spent providing palliative care, cited by 76% and lack of a palliative care service, cited by nearly half (46%).

Some of the most commonly affirmed barriers to timely advance care planning discussions included insufficient training in end-of-life communication issues, and insufficient training in cultural competency issues related to the discussions.

In terms of timeliness, only 17% said advance care planning discussions happen at the right time, while 81% said they happen too late, investigators found.

Funding for the research came from the National Institutes of Health. The authors had no disclosures or conflicts of interest related to the report.

SOURCE: Ufere NN, et al. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2019 Mar 15. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2019.03.022.

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