Case Study: Special Care at the End of Life; Terminal Patients and Their Families Get What They Need at Mount Sinai Medical Center

By Noonan, David | Newsweek, October 16, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Case Study: Special Care at the End of Life; Terminal Patients and Their Families Get What They Need at Mount Sinai Medical Center


Noonan, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Noonan

Somebody is going to have to invent a new word to describe the kinds of cases that Dr. Diane Meier deals with as head of the palliative-care program at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center--"complicated" just doesn't get the job done. Among her patients this year: a 93-year-old woman, newly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, unable to eat and in need of round-the-clock pain medication, who was the sole caregiver for her demented 90-year-old sister; an 81-year-old woman with bleeding into her lungs that was so bad she required almost constant transfusions to stay alive and who needed to be told that the operation she expected to save her life hadn't worked and she was going to die; a man in his 60s with heart disease who became too sick for the transplant he was counting on and whose daily at-home nursing needs were too much to manage for his wife, who works full time as a teacher to support them and has health problems of her own.

The list could go on, and on. Meier and her staff at Mount Sinai (which includes eight doctors, four nurses and two social workers) will treat about 1,000 patients this year, each one a daunting tangle of medical, psychological, social and spiritual issues. Many are the sort of patients who simply didn't exist a generation ago because the technology and drugs that help keep them alive didn't exist. They are chronically ill, often with multiple medical problems (what doctors call polymorbidity), plagued by pain and other debilitating symptoms, unlikely to benefit from surgery or other interventions. For the majority, death is nigh--it could be hours, it could be months, but there is no other prognosis. They are, in other words, exactly the sort of patients who often get lost in today's cure-driven, hyperspecialized health-care system. "Our patients are the ones who don't fit on the pathway," says Meier. "The normal processes of the hospital don't work well for them."

But determined people like Meier are transforming the way U.S. hospitals care for the most seriously ill patients. The engine of change is palliative medicine, a holistic, team approach to advanced illness that focuses on controlling symptoms (especially pain), setting realistic treatment goals and improving communication among all the parties involved in a case. When it's done right, patients suffer less, families have more control, doctors and nurses have closer and more satisfying relationships with patients and families, and hospital costs are reduced even as the quality of care improves. The field, with its roots in the hospice movement, is booming. Between 2000 and 2004, the number of hospital-based palliative-care programs in the country jumped from 632 to 1,102, which is 27 percent of all hospitals. The number of doctors and nurses who specialize has also climbed steadily in recent years, with 1,982 doctors and 5,500 nurses now certified in the field.

Like most candidates for palliative care, Angel Cruz and his wife, Thomasina, had never heard of it and had no idea that it was exactly what they needed.

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