Palliative Medicine Provides Critical Care to Our Economy

Palliative Medicine Provides Critical Care to Our Economy

Expanding the availability of palliative medicine is essential for our economic survival.

The unsustainable economics of our healthcare system paint a compelling case for the expansion of palliative medicine to address the burgeoning population of older adults approaching the end of life. The current trend of costly and often ineffective medical care in the final year of life will cripple our economy. Our country spends approximately 10 times more than the next closest country on end-of-life health care. And yet, we rank 37th out of the top 50 countries in terms of healthcare quality and value.


palliative care

Photo courtesy: Thinkstock / Sohel Parvez Haque

Andrew Thurston, MD, beautifully expresses the essence of palliative medicine: patients as people. Palliative medicine recognizes that patients are more than a disease or injury. Palliative care physicians listen carefully to the stories of a patient’s life to understand what living well means, even within the limitations of a disease or injury. For many patients, an acceptable—even meaningful—quality of life can be experienced with well-controlled pain and symptoms. This is the art of palliative care.

First and foremost, palliative care is rooted in compassion. Honoring patients as people who deserve the comfort of effectively managed symptoms and pain is fundamental to the mission. Yet just  as importantly, palliative medicine reduces the high cost of end-of-life care.


Beyond the clear benefits for patients, effective palliative medicine is essential to the health of our economy.

In his 2013 TEDx talk in Des Moines, Dr. Timothy Ihrig shared two key reflections that highlight the impact of palliative medicine to our economy:

#1: Palliative medicine reduces healthcare costs. A 2010 Harvard study of patients with late-stage lung cancer demonstrated that those receiving palliative care had fewer hospitalizations and interventions, resulting in lower medical costs in the final months of life. Those whose symptoms and pain were well managed were discharged sooner, reducing the length of hospital stays.

#2: The cost for chronic disease and end-of-life care is unsustainable. Currently, the most ill 15% of patients consume 15% of our national GDP, equating to approximately $2.3 trillion. When extrapolating the numbers to reflect the coming surge of baby boomers approaching the end of life, that number could reach 60% of the GDP. Clearly, that could be devastating. Without reshaping our approach to late life and end-of-life care, the very fabric of our capitalistic economy is threatened by the looming cost burden.

Making palliative medicine more available must become a priority for the American healthcare system.

To that end, the Palliative Care and Hospice Education and Training Act (H.R. 3119)–otherwise known as PCHETA–was introduced in the House of Representatives on July 21, 2015. This legislation will foster the growth of palliative medicine by 1) establishing palliative care education centers, 2) expanding interdisciplinary training programs, 3) developing curricula, 4) funding grants for nurse education, and 5) expanding research.

Let’s hope this legislation is not hijacked by threats of “death panels.” In fact, you can contact your Senator or Representative to voice your support for this bill. The Hospice Action Network is tracking its progress.

You can advocate for palliative care.

Most importantly, you can zealously advocate for palliative care when you or a loved one is suffering. In doing so, you or a family member will receive comfort care through the journey while concurrently lowering the cost of care. One patient at a time, we can each participate in reducing the strain of healthcare costs on our economy.

Editor’s note: this is the third post in a series that explores palliative care. Paul Scheier’s story of A Beautiful Death revealed the impact of comfort care for one man’s end-of-life journey. My most recent post explored the benefits of palliative care for you and your family.

QUESTION: Have you or a loved one experienced the benefit of palliative care? Will you please share your story by adding a comment and sharing this post via social media?

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