From the Journals

Vascular surgeons underutilize palliative care planning

View on the News

Breaking the stigma of comfort care

The low rate of palliative care consultations found in this study mirrors my own experience, as does the feeling of urgency to shed more light on the issue. The biggest hurdle surgeons face when it comes to palliative care consultations is that, in their minds, seeking these meetings is associated with immediate death care. Many surgeons are shy about bringing palliative care specialists on board because approaching families can be daunting.

Family members who do not know enough about comfort care can be upset by the idea. Addressing this misunderstanding is crucial. Consultations are not just conversations about hospice care but can be emotional and spiritual experiences that prepare both the family and the patient for alternative options when surgical intervention cannot guarantee a good quality of life. I would encourage surgeons to be more proactive and less defensive about comfort care . Luckily, understanding the importance of this issue among professionals is growing.

When I approach these situations, it’s important for me to have a full understanding of what families and patients usually expect. Decisions should not be based on how bad things are now but on the future. What was the patient’s last year like? What is the best-case scenario for moving forward on a proposed intervention? What will the patient’s quality of life be? Answering these questions helps the patient understand his or her situation, without diminishing a surgeon’s ability. If you are honest, the family will usually come to the conclusion that they do not want to subject the patient to ultimately unnecessary treatment.

Palliative care services help patients and their families deal with pain beyond the physical symptoms. Dealing with pain, depression, or delirium is only a part of comfort care – coping with a sense of hopelessness, family disruption, or feelings of guilt also can be a part and, significantly, a part that surgeons are not trained to diagnose or treat.

With more than 70 surgeons certified in hospice care and a growing number of fellowships in palliative care, I am extremely optimistic in the progress we have made and will continue to make.

Geoffrey Dunn, MD, FACS, is the medical director of the Palliative Care Consultation Service at UPMC Hamot Medical Center, Erie, Penn. He currently is Community Editor for the Pain and Palliative Care Community for the ACS’s web portal.



Investment in advanced palliative care planning has the potential to improve the quality of care for vascular surgery patients, according to investigators from Oregon Health and Science University, Portland.

Dale G. Wilson, MD, and his colleagues performed a retrospective review of electronic medical records for 111 patients, who died while on the vascular surgery service at the OHSU Hospital during 2005-2014.

Almost three-quarters (73%) of patients were transitioned to palliative care; of those, 14% presented with an advanced directive, and 28% received a palliative care consultation (JAMA Surg. 2017;152[2]:183-90. doi: 10.1001/jamasurg.2016.3970).

While palliative care services are increasing in hospitals, accounting for 4% of annual hospital admissions in 2012 according to the study, they are not implemented consistently. “Many teams from various specialties care for patients at end of life; however, we still do not know what prompts end-of-life discussions,” Dr. Wilson said. “There is still no consensus on when to involve palliative services in the care of critically ill patients.”

While the decision to advise a consultation is “variable and physician dependent,” the type of treatment required may help identify when consultations are appropriate.

Of the 14 patients who did not choose comfort care, 11 (79%) required CPR. Additionally, all had to be taken to the operating room and required mechanical ventilation.

Of 81 patients who chose palliative care, 31 did so despite potential medical options. These patients were older – average age, 77 years, as compared with 68 years for patients who did not choose comfort care – with 8 of the 31 (26%) presenting an advanced directive, compared with only 7 of 83 patients (8%) for those who did not receive palliative care.

Dr. Wilson and his colleagues found that patients who chose palliative care were more likely to have received a palliative care consultation, as well: 10 of 31 patients who chose comfort care received a consultation, as opposed to 1 of 83 who chose comfort care but did not receive a consultation.

The nature of the vascular surgery service calls for early efforts to gather information regarding patients’ views on end-of-life care, Dr. Wilson said, noting that 73% of patients studied were admitted emergently and 87% underwent surgery, leaving little time for patients to express their wishes.

“Because the events associated with withdrawal of care are often not anticipated, we argue that all vascular surgical patients should have an advance directive, and perhaps, those at particular high risk should have a preoperative palliative care consultation,” Dr. Wilson wrote.

Limitations to the study included the data abstraction, which was performed by a single unblinded physician. Researchers also gathered patients’ reasons for transitioning to comfort care retrospectively.

Next Article: