Education Can Alleviate Palliative Care Fears Among Patients With Cancer

A new study has found that an educational program can help ease worries associated with palliative care, and make cancer patients more likely to use it if referred.

Palliative care is an important tool for improving quality of life (QOL) for patients with advanced illness, but many are reluctant to embrace it. A new study has found that an educational program can help ease the worries associated with palliative care and make cancer patients more likely to use it if referred.

Palliative care has been identified as an “underutilized and powerful resource in the drive towards value,” as research has found it can benefit both patients and the healthcare system by reducing healthcare utilization and improving patient satisfaction. However, many patients are unaware of what this type of care involves, and refuse to accept referrals. A study recently published by the American Psychological Association examined whether an education initiative could help change these perceptions.

The intervention, called Project EMPOWER, provided nearly 300 cancer patients with information from the Early Palliative Care Study, while the remaining half of the study participants received no information. The influential Early Palliative Care Study, published in 2010 found that patients with lung cancer demonstrated improved QOL and fewer depressive symptoms if they received early palliative care. They were less likely to receive aggressive end-of-life care than the control group receiving normal care, but had a longer median survival time by almost 3 months.

The study found that Project EMPOWER “had a favorable impact on participants’ preferences for outpatient palliative cancer care relative to controls.” Patients receiving the intervention reported that they now viewed palliative care as “less scary” and had more positive perceptions of its efficacy. Importantly, this change in attitude was accompanied by a change in potential behavior, as these patients showed stronger intentions to use palliative care services if referred.

These encouraging findings did not come as a surprise to lead study author Michael Hoerger. “Most people are scared of palliative care because they believe it means stopping treatments, giving up, or starting hospice,” he explained in a press release from his institution, Tulane University. “When people learn they can still do their treatments and that there is good evidence that palliative care helps with side effects and the stress of their illness, of course they want it.”

The results were determined by statistical analyses that controlled for potentially influential factors like patient demographics or their severity of illness. The study also presented a relatively simple and low-cost strategy for boosting awareness and acceptance of palliative care.

“Usually it takes 20 to 30 years before effective interventions are widely accessible,” Hoerger said in the statement. “We hope that by educating people about the benefits of palliative care, more patients and families will feel empowered to use it.”