Patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or interstitial lung disease have longer stays in the intensive care unit, yet are less likely than patients with metastatic cancer to receive comprehensive palliative care.

This finding, reported in Annals of the American Thoracic Society, underscores the need to expand palliative care programs, incorporate elements of palliative care into routine ICU practices, and identify the most effective components of palliative care, said several experts who were not involved in the study.

“Patients with metastatic cancer are more likely to discuss goals of therapy and code status with their inpatient physician and then receive referrals to palliative care,” said Dr. Michael J. Waxman, medical director of the intensive care unit at Research Medical Center in Kansas City. “I can share many anecdotes over the years where a patient is admitted to my ICU with metastatic cancer, or severe COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] or IPF [idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis],” he added. “The cognition of these patients in some cases may have been normal, but I learned during my review that they did not receive a good discussion of desires regarding resuscitation or intensity of care. It was regularly assumed that there would be no limits on intensity of care.”

Palliative care historically has focused on patients with cancer, even though mortality rates can be high in noncancer lung disease, Dr. Crystal Brown and her associates at the University of Washington in Seattle wrote in their article (Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2016;13:684-9.). Their secondary analysis of the randomized Integrating Palliative and Critical Care trial examined medical chart data for 592 patients with COPD, 158 patients with metastatic cancer, and 79 patients with interstitial lung disease (ILD) who died in the ICUs of 15 Seattle-area hospitals between 2003 and 2008. The investigators performed regression modeling to test associations between diagnosis and eight elements of palliative care – avoidance of cardiopulmonary resuscitation during the hour before death, pain assessment during the 24 hours before death, the presence of a do-not-resuscitate order at the time of death, discussion of prognosis within 72 hours of ICU admission, withdrawal of life support measures before death, involvement of a spiritual care provider, consultation with a palliative care specialist, and the presence of an advance directive. The statistical models controlled for many potential confounders, including age, sex, race and ethnicity, education level, hospital, and whether patients died before or after hospitals implemented a palliative care quality improvement intervention.

Even though median lengths of ICU stay were significantly longer for ILD patients (4.2 days) and COPD patients (2.9 days) than for metastatic cancer patients (2.3 days), patients with COPD were significantly less likely to avoid CPR in the hour before death (adjusted odds ratio, 0.43; 95% confidence interval, 0.20-0.90), while ILD patients were less likely to have a documented pain assessment in the 24 hours before death (OR, 0.43; 95% CI, 0.19-0.97), compared with metastatic cancer patients. Patients with ILD or COPD also were significantly less likely to have a do-not-resuscitate order in place or documentation of a discussion of their prognosis, Dr. Brown and her associates reported.

The findings raise several concerns. “Clearly, this points to both intensivists and palliative care consultants needing to do more to target patients with nonmalignant end-stage chronic lung diseases, such as some patients with COPD and ILD,” said Dr. Robert Hyzy, director of the critical care medicine unit at the University of Michigan Hospital, Ann Arbor. The difference in length of stay also suggests a need to recognize earlier when critically ill patients have not responded to an appropriate time period of treatment (sometimes called a “time-limited trial”), “which signals the transition from cure to comfort,” he added.

Vera De Palo, MD, MBA, FCCP, who is chief of medicine at Signature Healthcare Brockton (Mass.) Hospital, agreed. “While treatment plans for patients with end-stage ILD and COPD do at times include palliative care, the study points out what is often the experience for most patients,” she said. “Our oncology colleagues have better understood the time line of transition between curative care and palliative care than those of us who also manage noncancer chronic diseases. They are more likely to participate in the development of palliative care programs, ensuring that this avenue of care is also available to their patients.”

This is not the only study to reveal gaps in palliative care for advanced nonmalignant lung disease. In a recent analysis of the Nationwide Inpatient Sample, only 2.6% of COPD patients who were home on oxygen and then were hospitalized with an exacerbation received a palliative care referral (CHEST. 2016 Jul 4. doi:10.1016/j.chest.2016.06.023). Such findings belie the most recent palliative care guidelines from the American Thoracic Society for patients with respiratory diseases and critical illnesses, which not only emphasize most of the same palliative care elements as the study by Dr. Brown and her colleagues, but also recommend “early consultation” with palliative care experts to help manage difficult end-of-life discussions ( Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2008;177:912-27 ).

Oncology palliative care includes both primary and secondary (specialty-level) services, Dr. Arif Kamal of Duke Cancer Institute at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C., and his associates wrote in a viewpoint published in JAMA . Primary services, such as assessing and managing symptoms, discussing priorities and what to expect, and ensuring continuity of care, are usually left to the oncology team. Secondary services are reserved for more complex or time-consuming cases and are provided by palliative care consultants. “This ‘manage first, refer second’ practice reflects the ethos of the oncology profession – the notion that ‘this is our job’ – while also reflecting a practical humility – ‘It’s hard to be everything to everyone all the time,’ ” Dr. Kamal and his associates wrote.

When it comes to palliative care for advanced nonmalignant lung disease, Dr. De Palo said, patients and families may not feel ready to discuss end-of-life issues, and providers may find it difficult to initiate these conversations. “From the moment of diagnosis, the focus of a patient’s care for providers is curative care.” Including a palliative focus can be difficult.

Nonmalignant pulmonary diseases often carry an “uncertain short-term prognosis,” the ATS guidelines stated, and experts echoed that point. “I believe our confidence in determination of prognosis is a key factor in hesitation or delay in engaging palliative care,” said David Bowton, MD, a professor specializing in critical care at Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C. Oncology patients needing ICU care usually have “considerably higher” mortality than the rates of 20%-45% and 15%-30% that are cited for ILD and COPD patients, respectively, he said. Furthermore, there are seemingly accurate scoring systems for predicting short-term mortality in critically ill cancer patients, which is not the case for ILD or COPD, he added.

Such factors point to differences in disease trajectory. “In this study, it is likely that the patients with cancer diagnoses more often received the elements of palliative care in the ICU because it was clearly communicated to the intensive care providers that the opportunities for curative care were exhausted,” Dr. De Palo said. “With care for end-stage chronic respiratory diseases, ICU care can usually optimize breathing enough to get the patient off the vent and stabilized at their previous functional plateau or, more often, at a lower functional plateau, until the next shortness of breath episode.”

Given these challenges and uncertainties, how can clinicians improve palliative care for patients with advanced nonmalignant lung diseases? “Simple. Have a discussion with everyone about what their expectations are,” said Dr. Waxman. “Find out what is important to them and what their goals of therapy are. Help them understand the reality of what actually will be possible to accomplish in a hospitalization, a surgery, or a therapy.”

Dr. De Palo agreed. “For my patients with end-stage respiratory disease, we often discuss whether a sustaining therapy of mechanical ventilation would offer any benefit, and what role cardiopulmonary resuscitation should play in the context of their wishes for care as their disease progresses,” she said. “I believe that providers and health care organizations should offer patients the spectrum of curative and palliative care, and work together to develop a palliative care program where one does not exist,” she stressed. Access to “the full spectrum of care – from curative to palliative – will provide the compassion and quality of life at each stage of their chronic disease.”

Intensivists should also ensure that all ICU patients receive consultations with providers “who can look more at the big picture of their health care, not just at their admission diagnosis and the specific treatment they are receiving,” Dr. Waxman said. And Dr. Bowton offered a final caveat. “While it appears obvious that providing palliative care consultation or integrating elements of palliative care into our routine ICU care will improve the experience for our patients and their families, this has been difficult to demonstrate in well-designed studies,” he said. “Thus, rather than focusing solely on our apparent shortcomings in providing palliative care to our ICU patients with ILD and COPD, we should vigorously support efforts to ascertain what components of palliative care and what ‘dose’ are most effective in alleviating physical and emotional distress.”

The National Institute of Nursing Research funded the study by Dr. Brown and her associates, who reported no relevant financial conflicts of interest.