More and more people are living with serious illnesses such as cancer, heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and liver disease. The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (NCCDPHP) reports that 60 percent of U.S. adults have a chronic disease, which is the leading cause of death and disability and the leading driver of healthcare costs.
Palliative care is well-positioned to meet the unique needs of seriously ill individuals by helping to deliver relief from the symptoms and stresses of chronic illness and improving the quality of life for those in care and their loved ones. In contrast with the more widely known hospice care, which provides compassionate care for those diagnosed with terminal conditions, palliative care can be combined with curative treatment and is applicable at any stage in a serious illness. Palliative care reduces emergency department utilization, decreases visits to costly and unwanted acute care hospital services and improves the healthcare experience.
Yet, many people are unaware that this service is available to them. A recent survey found 89 percent of participants had inadequate knowledge of palliative care. Beyond lack of awareness, there continues to be a lack of access as well, despite palliative care expansion over the last 20 years. Only 17 percent of rural hospitals have palliative care programs compared with 90 percent in cities, according to a report compiled by the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) and the National Palliative Care Research Center.
Facilities that provide palliative care are also frequently understaffed—limiting the reach of this beneficial treatment option. Telehealth has emerged as a critical tool to ensure the millions of people suffering from serious illnesses have access to personalized palliative care services.
Virtual technology enables palliative care providers to overcome the barriers of in-person delivery— enabling anyone to receive treatment anytime, anywhere. COVID-19 has enlightened us all to the power of telemedicine, and we are now entering a new era for virtual care, moving beyond video visits for simple ailments like colds and skin infections to specialty care, such as palliative care. Today, serious illnesses can be successfully managed within the community and at home thanks to virtual palliative care services.
To effectively deliver virtual palliative care and make the greatest impact, healthcare providers need to:
Treat the Whole Person: Serious illness care is not limited to curative treatments – people also require support to address their physical, mental, spiritual and social needs. The most effective virtual palliative care is personalized and must be designed to holistically help the person under care and improve satisfaction for them and their families.
Focus on Relationships: Relationships and communication are at the core of palliative care and remain crucial in a virtual environment. Through video, care teams can still share compassionate statements and display empathetic emotions. Remember to allow opportunities for individuals to be vulnerable and emotional during virtual appointments. Look for signals that indicate an individual could use assistance managing pain, symptoms and side effects.
Keep Collaboration Front and Center: Interdisciplinary palliative care teams, which are made up of several members board-certified physicians, nurses, social workers, care managers and chaplains—must serve as an extension of a person’s existing care team. To effectively improve quality of life for people experiencing serious illnesses, palliative care teams must work in tandem with community-based organizations, primary care providers, specialists, individuals and their families to provide comprehensive, high-quality and standardized treatment resources, coordinate care and enhance communication.
Think Outside the Box: While telehealth has long been heralded as a solution to providing care to people who live in remote areas, the benefits of virtual palliative care are not limited to rural communities. Think of populations who would prefer the convenience of receiving palliative care and continuous monitoring at home, regardless of geography.
As the number of people suffering from serious illnesses continues to grow, we must embrace virtual care to ensure more individuals receive the attention they deserve, and that their needs are met. By bringing palliative care into the home, anyone with a chronic condition can receive whole-person treatment around the clock.
About Michael Fratkin, MD, FAAHPM
Michael Fratkin, MD, FAAHPM, is the Chief Medical Officer for Vynca. He is an experienced physician and educator with a diverse background in internal medicine and palliative medicine. He is dedicated to the physical and psycho-spiritual well-being of people with serious illness and their families as they face complex medical challenges. He is passionate about bringing greater well-being to the overburdened and underserved. He is inspired to enhance the public understanding of living and dying and to enhance the work experience for all that choose to serve people navigating the lived experience of serious illness. Dr. Fratkin founded ResolutionCare (acquired by Vynca in 2021) to insure capable and soulful care of everyone, everywhere as they approach the completion of life.