The Heart of the Matter: Palliative Care in Heart Failure

Megan Rau HeadshotApproximately 5.7 million U.S. adults have heart failure (HF), and 1 in 5 individuals over age 40 will develop HF in their lifetimes. HF is accompanied by many symptoms – including fatigue, shortness of breath, mood changes, pain, and anorexia. Among older adults with HF, these symptoms are compounded by mobility limitations, frailty, and other co-morbidities. Palliative Care is an optimal way to address symptoms while concurrently treating with disease-modifying interventions (Figure 1).

 

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Figure 1. Schematic Depiction of Comprehensive Heart Failure Care. 

Palliative care is defined by the World Health Organization as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual…Palliative care is applicable early in the course of illness, in conjunction with other therapies that are intended to prolong life.”

Palliative care can help HF patients in several ways. First, the palliative care team can work with a patient’s cardiologist in proactively treating symptoms as they develop over the course of the illness and during times of exacerbations. While the underlying cause of these symptoms is not completely understood, hypotheses suggest that physiological changes contribute to symptom burden (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Schematic Etiology of Heart Failure Symptoms.  

One of the most common symptoms with heart failure is dyspnea, and a patient’s cardiologist and palliative care clinician may work together to treat dyspnea by using diuretics to optimize fluid status, teaching breathing techniques, and (in advanced disease) administering a low dose opioid such as morphine to alleviate shortness of breath. These treatments have the unified goal of improving a patient’s quality of life.

Second, palliative care assists with effective communication between patients and clinicians in the form of advanced care planning – including establishing a health care proxy, completing advanced directives, discussing goals of care, and having end of life conversations regarding when to stop certain interventions. Advanced care planning discussions help to ensure patients’ preferences for what is most important in their care are met.

Goodlin et al provide examples of language clinicians may use to eliciting these preferences, such as “What treatment we recommend depends on your medical condition, but also on what approach to care you prefer and what is important to you at this point in your life”. This statement allows a platform for patients to express their wishes and what quality of life means to them. Their clinician is then able to recommend treatments that align with their goals and preferences.

HF is a common disease with a dynamic trajectory due to periods of exacerbation and recovery. It is imperative that cardiologists and palliative care clinicians work together to provide disease-modifying interventions while concurrently treating symptoms and developing advanced care plans with patients.

For more information on Palliative Care in Heart Failure visit the following websites:

 

By: Megan E. Rau, MD, MPH

Dr. Rau is a practicing physician at NYU Langone Health who specializes in geriatrics and palliative care & hospice. 

Hearing Loss and Heart Failure

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

At first glance, hearing impairment and heart disease seem to have very little in common. However, the relationship has been hypothesized since the 1960’s, and more recently has been established in epidemiologic studies – with a particular emphasis on heart failure. For example, a recent study by Sterling et al. examined patients in the cross-sectional NHANES Survey aged ≥70 years with a diagnosis of heart failure. The authors described the percentage with quantifiable hearing loss based on pure-tone audiometry (considered the gold standard test).

The main findings: 74% of patients with heart failure had some degree of hearing loss, which was significantly higher than those without heart failure (63%). Further, only 16% of heart failure patients wore hearing aids. Thus there was a disconnect between the burden of hearing loss, and use of a strategy (hearing aids) with proven effectiveness.

Why does this matter? According to the authors: “since patients with HF [heart failure] are frequently in noisy hospitals and clinics where they receive myriad instructions about disease management, it seems likely that untreated hearing loss could impair patient-physician communication and ultimately HF self-care.” After my recent two weeks attending on the inpatient cardiology service, I concur. We are constantly expecting our patients to provide us an accurate history, comprehend diagnostic test results, and adhere to discharge plans, all of which may be affected by hearing impairment.

What are the solutions? The first is to increase identification of hearing impairment through screening – and with advances in technology, I’d predict this can soon be easily done at the bedside with portable electronic devices. The second is to make hearing aids more accessible, including over-the-counter purchases – and recently there has been some notable advocacy work advancing laws to increase access. Through these two simple strategies, we may be able to make meaningful improvements in the health of our older cardiac patients.

Frailty and Advanced Heart Failure

dodson%20headshotThis week we published a review in the Journal Current Cardiovascular Risk Reports  on the concept of frailty and advanced heart failure in older adults. As geriatricians have long known, frailty–defined as an increased vulnerability to physiologic stressors–is an incredibly common and often unrecognized syndrome in older patients. Cardiologists are increasingly recognizing that frailty predicts a broad range of outcomes, including mortality, in conditions such as heart failure, but also other situations such as acute myocardial infarction and transcatheter aortic valve replacement.

A few highlights from our paper:

– 80% of patients with heart failure are over age 65.

– As the heart failure population continues to age, the burden of frailty has increased.

– The estimated prevalence of frailty in advanced heart failure varies widely, with some estimates ranging up to 3 out of every 4 patients.

– It is challenging to determine causality between heart failure and frailty; they share common inflammatory pathways and one syndrome may mimic the other.

With our current technologies, one of the most pressing clinical questions is whether placement of a left ventricular assist device (LVAD) in advanced systolic heart failure can reverse the frailty phenotype, by correcting underlying physiologic derangements. Flint et al. have put forward the concept of “LVAD-responsive frailty” and “LVAD-independent frailty” – with an illustrative figure cited in our paper. Their concept emphasizes the considerable heterogeneity that exists within heart failure populations. We will need further studies to be able to predict where frailty may improve, in order to better counsel patients about their expected outcomes.

 

By: John Dodson