The COVID-19 pandemic spurred substantial change in serious illness care. Particularly, it drew attention to palliative care’s widening role across the continuum.
Demand for serious illness care soared during the outbreak boosted palliative care awareness and putt a greater emphasis on the value that these services can bring to seriously ill patients and families, according to Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) CEO Brynn Bowman.
While growing recognition around palliative care is a step towards improved quality outcomes and better care coordination, these interdisciplinary teams lack the resources needed to sufficiently support them amid rising demand, Bowman said at a CAPC conference held in tandem with the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC)
Stronger reimbursement from insurance plans and government payers such as the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is needed to move the needle towards change, Bowman indicated.
“Throughout the pandemic leaders of palliative care programs reported that their services had become highly visible and highly valued in terms of clinical cultures that relied upon them,” Bowman told Palliative Care News at the C-TAC-CAPC Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. “What’s lagging now is the resources to be able to then honor that increased demand. Palliative care teams are struggling as census volumes go up and additional resources haven’t followed. They’re in a difficult time of trying to have better conversations with health plans, with CMS and with leaders of health care organizations to try to translate that value into support for palliative care programs.”
To date, COVID-19 has claimed more than 1.15 million lives across the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data.
Hospitals, intensive care units and urgent care and emergency departments were among the care settings hardest hit by the deadly virus. Overall, nearly 6.5 million hospitalizations nationwide have been COVID-related since the outbreak began, according to CDC estimates.
From Sep. 2 to Oct. 21, the most recent time frame for available data, the number of COVID-related deaths rose 12.5%, while emergency department and hospitalizations from the illness declined 4.6% during that same period, the CDC reported.
Though the worst of the pandemic has subsided, the deadly virus has taxed health care workers across the continuum, including in hospital and emergency settings – an area that palliative care providers have ramped up support around.
More health and hospital systems turned to palliative care teams to help reinforce their clinical staff during the pandemic, a trend that could gain momentum toward a more collaborative, connected approach to serious illness care delivery, according to Dr. Andy Esch, a palliative care specialist based in Florida who also serves as senior education advisor at CAPC.
“There’s been a lot of strides, and I think the pandemic put a spotlight on palliative care and its impact on how patients and caregivers experience illness,” Esch said at the C-TAC-CAPC Leadership Summit.
Total employment in the health care field declined during the pandemic as workers left the industry, with staffing volumes experiencing a slow recovery in its wake.
Nearly a third (31%) of health care workers nationwide considered leaving the field during the outbreak, a 2021 Morning Consult report found. Additionally, 79% of health care professionals have indicated that workforce shortages affect them at their place of work.
Though staffing volumes have improved for some health care organizations, turnover and burnout continue to put pressure on hospice and palliative care employers, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE).
“Even after the pandemic, many of the effects the pandemic has had on the health care workforce
will likely persist. Addressing these impacts as well as the underlying challenges that pre-dated
the pandemic can help build a stronger and more resilient health care system for the future,” the agency indicated in a statement last year.
With a greater presence in hospitals and the community, palliative care’s interdisciplinary structure could act as a model for a more coordinated, collaborative serious illness care, according to Esch.
“The use of partnerships we developed during COVID can lay a blueprint for future integration of palliative care into all serious illness care so that it becomes the norm to have palliative care side-by-side with other specialists navigating serious illness,” Esch told Palliative Care News. “What health systems can learn from the past is looking at the partnerships that palliative care developed with emergency departments and [intensive care units (ICUs)] during COVID and use that model as a blueprint for more integration into other sub-specialties and improving overall experiences for patients and families.”