Rise in Palliative Care Could Help Boomers Living with Chronic Conditions

With 78 million Baby Boomers expected to live longer, many with chronic conditions, providing adequate care for them continues to put pressure on the U.S. healthcare system. 

According to the U.S. Administration on Aging, a person currently aged 65 can expect, on average, to live to the age of 84, the highest life expectancy rate for Americans in history.

That means more people will be living with long-term, chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and arthritis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 50 percent of U.S. adults are living with a chronic condition.

Palliative care, a rapidly growing field, will likely be filling many of the gaps in healthcare coverage in the future.

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What Is Palliative Care?

Palliative care involves many facets of disease care, going far beyond treatment for the major symptoms.

For example, when a person is diagnosed with cancer, there are many uncertainties, including how to tell their kids, how it will interfere with their career, or if they have enough money to pay for treatment.

“You need palliative care right then,” Dr. Diane Meier, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC), told Healthline. “You might have a disease that may be cured, but you need it to understand what’s likely to happen when you start treatment.”

Palliative caregivers can help patients understand the condition and plan for care, as well as assist with family issues and prepare them for what may come down the road. Later in treatment, if a person experiences fatigue, weakness, or “chemo brain,” a short-term course of Ritalin may help. Steroids may also help improve mood and increase the patient's energy.

“These are things oncologists don’t typically think about,” Meier said. “Their job is to treat the cancer.”

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Palliative Care Becoming More Common

Approved as a medical specialty in 2008, palliative care is one of the fastest growing fields in medicine.

The presence of palliative caregivers in American hospitals has doubled in the past five years. While 10 years ago palliative care was rarely seen in the U.S., now 63 percent of hospitals with 50 or more beds have a palliative care team, according to a report from CAPC.

The field, Meier said, is expanding beyond major hospitals to dialysis centers, cancer wards, homes, and other places where it’s needed. Getting there, however, requires leaping over some major obstacles.

“Getting the change that is needed is a huge political challenge,” Meier said. “The disruption to the economy is enormous.”

Because healthcare represents 10 percent of the U.S. economy, and because for-profit hospitals are often staffed by unionized employees, reallocating resources from large medical centers would be a significant hurdle.

“People will do anything to defend their jobs and there are a lot of jobs in that sector,” Meier said.

In the long run, however, palliative care could save money in crucial areas. Some of the poorest patients rely on emergency room services for health crises and use ambulances to get there. But an increase in palliative care, which could include transportation to and from regular doctors appointments, could save billions of dollars a year.

“The taxpayer is paying for these ER visits and emergency care, not because it’s the best solution for the patient, but literally because there’s no other alternative,” Meier said.

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