James Khatcheressian, MD

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Improving Palliative and Supportive Care in Cancer Patients

September 1st 2005

Twenty years of research in controlling symptoms such as pain andnausea have shown persistent suboptimal performance by the US oncologysystem. The data suggest that some of the tools of palliative careprograms can improve physical symptoms of seriously ill patients at acost society can afford. To fix these problems will require recognitionof the symptoms or concerns, a system such as an algorithm or careplan for addressing each, measurement of the change, and accountabilityfor the change. Symptom assessment scales such as the EdmontonSymptom Assessment Scale or Rotterdam Symptom Check List work tomake symptoms manifest. Listing symptoms on a problem list is a necessarystep in addressing them. Physical symptoms such as pain can beimproved by use of computer prompts, algorithms, dedicated staff time,team management, or combinations of these strategies. Less concreteproblems such as medically appropriate goal-setting, integrating palliativecare into anticancer care sooner, and informing patients aboutthe benefits and risks of chemotherapy near the end of life require morecomplex solutions. We review what is known about symptom control inoncology, how and why some programs do better, and make suggestionsfor practice. Finally, we suggest a practical plan for using symptomassessment scales, listing the problems, and managing them accordingto algorithms or other predetermined plans.