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Palliative care for terminal illness may actually extend life

Palliative care is designed to relieve suffering and improve quality of life for people with terminal illnesses. It’s not supposed to help them people live longer. But according to a new study, it may do just that.

Researchers studied 151 people with non-small-cell lung cancer that had spread to other parts of their bodies. Most people with this diagnosis die within one year. In the study, 77 newly diagnosed patients were assigned to receive palliative care along with the standard treatment for the cancer. The other 74 patients received the standard treatment without palliative care.

At the end of the study, researchers found that the patients in the palliative care group lived more than two months longer, on average, than the patients receiving standard care, even though the patients in the standard care group were more likely to ask for and receive aggressive treatment in the last two weeks of life. The patients receiving palliative care also scored higher on measures of quality of life and enjoying the time they had left. They also were more likely to express their wishes regarding resuscitation at the end of life.

“With earlier referral to a hospice program, patients may receive care that results in better management of symptoms, leading to stabilization of their condition and prolonged survival,” the authors wrote. The study was released Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Despite the documented benefits of palliative care and the availability of hospice programs (about 80% of major U.S. hospitals have programs), doctors are often slow to refer their patients to palliative care services, said the authors of an editorial accompanying the study. Doctors may view palliative care as a distasteful alternative to continuing life-prolonging care, the authors wrote, instead of viewing it as an addition to regular treatment.

“The new approach recognizes that life-threatening illness, whether it can be cured or controlled, carries with it significant burdens of suffering for patients and their families and that this suffering can be effectively addressed by modern palliative care teams,” the wrote.

-- Shari Roan / Los Angeles Times

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