Ask any older adult about their preferences for end-of-life care, and the majority of them will tell you that they would prefer to die at home rather than in a hospital. Unfortunately, this desire is often not fulfilled.
The population in the United States is aging; by 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be over age 65. This shift in demographics has already had a significant impact on healthcare utilization, particularly in regard to emergency medical services. Not only do older adults visit the emergency department (ED) at higher rates than younger patients, but they are also more likely to be admitted and experience longer stays.
These trends are especially prominent near the end of life, with half of older adults visiting the ED within the last month of life. For those older patients who are discharged home from the ED, repeat visits are common. This often results in a vicious cycle in which older patients are repeatedly discharged home from the ED, only to return within a few months, often for the same diagnosis that brought them to the ED in the first place. Notably, there are few safeguards in place to reduce recurrent ED visits.
With the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 came the Hospital Readmission Reduction Program, which allowed Medicare to reduce payments to hospitals with excessive readmission rates. As a result, hospitals created programs to reduce readmissions, such as arranging for outpatient follow-up before discharge. However, such initiatives are only available to patients who are admitted to inpatient services and do not exist for patients who are discharged home from the ED. Thus, the ED represents a pivotal point in which clinicians can intervene to improve end-of-life care and reduce recurrent ED visits among older adult patients with advanced illnesses. The question then becomes: what should those interventions be?
Utilizing the ED as a means to enroll patients in palliative care programs represents a paradigm shift that may support older adults with advanced illness and repeat ED presentations. Palliative care is a rapidly growing field that is designed to provide supplementary care to patients with serious, life-limiting illnesses by providing medical, social, and emotional support to patients and their caregivers. Importantly, palliative care does not depend on prognosis and may be delivered in conjunction with life-prolonging treatment.
Multiple studies have shown that palliative care improves quality of life among patients and their families, lessens symptom burden, reduces future ED visits, and helps patients achieve their end-of-life goals (as evidenced here and here). Further, when the American Board of Emergency Medicine officially recognized palliative medicine as a subspecialty in 2006, palliative care found a new role within the ED. As a result, there has been a surge of research regarding the benefits and feasibility of palliative care in the ED, as well as the best ways to design programs and educate providers.
Although the benefits have been well established, there are also significant barriers to implementing palliative care in the ED. Patients in the ED, particularly those in need of palliative care services, are often distressed and may not be receptive to discussions regarding end-of-life care. Additionally, some ED physicians may feel that palliative care is outside the scope of their practice. Others worry that the chaotic environment in the ED is not conducive to meaningful end-of-life care discussions, and that implementing palliative care in the ED may significantly impact wait times.
In spite of these barriers, frequent repeated ED visits are likely to become more common with the aging U.S. population, and initiating palliative care in the ED has the potential to improve care for older adults in several ways: by decreasing repeat ED visits, improving quality of life, and helping patients achieve their end-of-life goals. Future implementation science efforts may help to identify optimal strategies to deliver palliative care in the fast-moving and often disruptive ED environment.
By: Julia Allison Brickey
Julia Allison Brickey is a medical student at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.