From the AGA Journals

AGA Clinical Practice Update: Palliative care management in cirrhosis



Clinicians who manage patients with cirrhosis should incorporate palliative care “irrespective of transplant candidacy,” according to a clinical practice update from the American Gastroenterological Association.

“[T]his care should be based on needs assessment instead of prognosis alone, delivered concurrently with curative or life-prolonging treatments, and tailored to the stage of disease,” wrote Puneeta Tandon, MD, of University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alta., and associates. Their report is in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Cirrhosis has a median survival ranging from 2 years for decompensated disease to 12 years for compensated disease, according to one systemic review. Moreover, even compensated cirrhosis incurs “a high burden of physical and psychological symptoms,” which increases as cirrhosis progresses, the update authors noted.

According to another review, there is established evidence outside cirrhosis that palliative care – including comprehensive symptom management, advance care planning, and timely referrals to specialty palliative care and hospice support – has the potential to significantly improve quality of life, end-of-life care, health care costs, coordination among providers, and caregiver outcomes.

However, the update authors noted that there remain few guidelines or guidance statements regarding palliative care in cirrhosis. Hence, the clinical practice update reviews 10 best practices to help clinicians fill this gap.

Providers “from any specialty, within any healthcare setting” can help provide palliative care for patients with cirrhosis, the experts emphasized. This is, in part, because of the growing population with cirrhosis being met with a limited number of palliative care specialists; dealing with this reality can be helped by inviting other providers to learn about and engage in palliative care.

Another best practice statement addressed assessing symptoms “within physical, psychological, social, and spiritual domains related to [patients’] liver disease, its treatment, and prognosis.” This approach is needed because of the complex effects that a life-threatening illness and its symptoms can have on many variables, including loss of independence/identity, financial stress, and impact on personal relationships. A systematic review of symptom prevalence in end-stage liver disease revealed a complex milieu, including pain, muscle cramps, sexual dysfunction, insomnia, and anxiety.

High-quality communication is important in palliative care, including discussion of prognosis and goals of care. Providers specializing in gastroenterology/hepatology should reevaluate prognosis and clarify prognosis and goals of care with patients and caregivers during routine visits and sentinel events, such as new complications, a hospital or intensive care admission, and when transplant eligibility is determined. However, prognostication in cirrhosis can be challenging, the experts noted. The update authors also acknowledged that, while more research is needed to inform practice regarding communicating with patients with serious illness about palliative care and goals of care, there are courses and resources meant to help improve those skills, including those provided by Vital Talk, Respecting Choices, and the Serious Illness Conversation Guide.

Cirrhosis “has physical, mental, and financial consequences” for caregivers, especially when patients have decompensated disease. To support caregivers, clinicians can routinely evaluate their burdens and needs. Tools such as the Caregiver Strain Index are useful and can be administered by ancillary staff. Clinicians also can reach out to primary care and palliative care providers to identify local resources for caregiver support.

“Because lack of time is one of the major barriers to administering palliative care, healthcare providers should consider how they can optimize efficiencies in palliative care delivery,” the experts wrote. Examples include identifying local billing codes, arranging for ancillary staff to screen patients on their palliative care needs, and setting up multidisciplinary teams that work together to deliver palliative care. If access to specialty palliative care is limited, providers can collaborate with local specialist teams to set “clear triggers and pathways for referral.”

Finally, hospice referrals are often delayed for patients with cirrhosis. “Find out your local referral criteria for hospice and what would be required to refer a cirrhosis patient there,” the experts advised. “Healthcare providers caring for patients with cirrhosis should provide timely referral to hospice for patients who have comfort-oriented goals and prognosis of 6 months or less.”

The authors of the clinical practice update received no funding support. They reported having no relevant conflicts of interest.

Next Article: