Health care is personal, especially when it comes to caring for someone as they approach death. However, half of Americans feel they have too little control over end-of-life medical decisions.

As the industry moves toward a more holistic approach to care delivery, health care organizations are beginning to rethink how they treat patients and starting to embed end-of-life care plans into the overall approach earlier on, sometimes before people even become ill. In a recent report on end-of-life care by the Aspen Health Strategy Group, several principles are discussed that take a broader view around caring for seriously ill patients, helping to ensure that care is sensitive, aligned with patient and family wishes, and always working toward enhanced quality of life. One of the top recommendations in the report to achieving that end is increasing emphasis on palliative care.

Deemed the fastest-growing medical specialty in the United States, palliative care is interdisciplinary care (medicine, nursing, social work, chaplaincy, and other specialties when appropriate) that focuses on improving the quality of life for persons of any age with a serious illness, as well as for their families.

While a relatively new concept, palliative care has been increasing in prevalence, in part due to new value-based care incentives that promote an environment in which payment relies on not only treating the illness but keeping patients comfortable and, when possible, at home.

However, there is a significant misunderstanding about what defines effective palliative care among patients and providers. Palliative care is about proactive care, which can be used at any point in an illness. Unlike hospice, palliative care is not just for those who are dying; it can be delivered to anyone with a serious or chronic medical condition from the time of diagnosis, regardless of whether the patient is terminally ill, expected to recover fully, or facing years of chronic or progressive disease. It is often provided at the same time as curative medical regimens to help patients tolerate side effects of disease and treatment, while carrying on with everyday life. This includes social, emotional, and spiritual support, as well as advising families on how to care for their loved ones.

Effective Palliative Care Improves Patient Experience

In dealing with these illnesses at the time of diagnosis through palliative care, caregivers can greatly increase patient satisfaction and outcomes, while reducing costs. For example, one of Premier, Inc.’s (a health care improvement company) members, Presbyterian Healthcare Services, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, launched palliative care outpatient clinics in 2012 and now offers them at three primary-care offices and two oncology offices. In a 2014 cost comparison of patients’ costs in the six months before their first visit to a Presbyterian outpatient clinic to the six months after, hospitalization costs dropped by 19 percent, use of outpatient hospital services went down by 44 percent, and emergency department costs decreased by 79 percent. All of this was done while maintaining quality. And they’ve continued to expand these services by creating a more robust home palliative program with 24/7 access to trained professionals. Acute care hospitalization rates for these patients are now extremely low when compared to national or regional norms.

Research has also shown advantages in administering palliative care. In a randomized trial of patients with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer, those assigned to early palliative care not only experienced a better quality of life and fewer symptoms of depression than patients receiving standard care, but they also lived more than two months longer.

Health systems in Premier’s quality improvement and population health collaboratives are sharing their best practices in palliative care and implementing effective models across the continuum to make them available in outpatient settings, nursing homes, and at home. They are also driving ongoing educational initiatives to improve cross-specialty generalist palliative care skills and ensure high-risk patients complete advance care directives. At Fairview Health Services, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, nearly all of the oncology clinic sites have interdisciplinary palliative care teams embedded within them. Physicians, social workers, and nurses work together to ensure cancer patients and their families are receiving timely emotional support and are prepared for future decisions using advance care plans.

These efforts are well-aligned with and supported by value-based care delivery and payment models, including accountable care organizations and bundled payment initiatives that require high levels of care coordination. For instance, last year Medicare began paying for voluntary advance care planning. This creates appropriate incentives for physicians, patients, and family members to spend time discussing patients’ health care wishes, which is just as important as having a life insurance policy.

Plan For The Care You Want

Advance care plans can be created even if you’re not ill. In fact, about 90 percent of people say that talking with their doctors and loved ones about their preferred care wishes is important. This includes writing legal instructions on treatments one would or would not want to receive. Patients who have these plans in place report greater satisfaction with their health care, based on how much treatment is desired, and have been shown to have lower costs of care.

Additional efforts dedicated to helping people talk about their wishes for future care, especially care delivered at the end of life, are underway. One that is focused on ambulatory practices and other sites of care is the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s program, The Conversation Project. It has developed a starter kit to help people have conversations with family members or other loved ones about their wishes, should they become seriously ill.

However, definitions for palliative care standards and remaining fee-for-service incentives can stand in the way. As addressed in Dying in America: Improving Quality and Honoring Individual Preferences near the End of Life, there are too few standards for professional institutions and other organizations to follow regarding advance care planning. In addition, lingering fee-for-service models incentivize volume over value, which can lead to care that may not be in line with patients’ wishes.

Therapies to treat diseases, especially those that are life-threatening, need to be balanced with therapies to relieve suffering or improve the quality of life in the process.

While progress is being made, we need to continue to think about how we fold standards of humanity into caring for the people we love, should they be faced with a devastating illness. Conversations about serious illness can be difficult to have, but they are essential to ensuring the care delivered is compassionate, wanted, and warranted.