Highlight on New Jersey: Proposed bill would expand palliative care education

The New Jersey Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee approved legislation that would establish a “Palliative Care and Hospice Care Consumer and Professional Information and Education Program,” within the New Jersey Department of Health and would require state-licensed hospitals and other facilities to provide information about palliative care options to patients facing severe illnesses.  The bill (A-3911), which was sponsored by Nancy Pinkin (D-Middlesex) and Herb Conaway, Jr., M.D. (D-Burlington), is intended to “help improve the quality of life and relieve pain and suffering for patients suffering from serious illnesses.”

As detailed in a statement released by Assembly Democrats, the proposed Palliative Care and Hospice Care Advisory Council would be composed of nine members who would work with the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey to development the informational program. The law would require every licensed hospital or facility that provides long-term care services in New Jersey to make information about palliative care and hospice care available to individuals with severe illnesses. If a patient is not able to make health care decisions, the information must be provided to an individual who is authorized to make health care decisions on that patient’s behalf.

According to the American Cancer Society, palliative care, which is also known as supportive care, is a rapidly expanding specialized field of knowledge that is appropriate at any stage of any serious illness such as cancer, where an individual is experiencing difficulty managing symptoms.  The Society’s website explains that palliative care is “care for adults and children with serious illness that focuses on relieving suffering and improving quality of life for patients and their families, but is not intended to cure the disease itself.” Additionally such care “provides patients of any age or disease stage with relief from symptoms, pain, and stress, and should be provided along with curative treatment.” In the past, such care was associated with providing comfort when treatment was no longer effective at the end stage of life. However, the Society emphasizes that palliative care can provide relief, and is “appropriate at any age and at any stage in any serious illness.”

As reported by NJSpotlight, the growth of palliative care may have been hindered by its association with hospice care, which is not covered by Medicare unless a patient has a life expectancy of six months and forgoes other treatments. However, proponents of the palliative care bill express hope that it will become more widely accepted through simple education.

Co-sponsor Pinkin has emphasized the need to provide education about palliative care for individuals facing serious illnesses who may not be aware of their options. In a letter stressing the importance of the bill, Pinkin stated, “Unfortunately, nearly eight of 10 respondents of a 2011 survey lacked knowledge of palliative care services.” She added, “It is more than just end-of-life care. It is about alleviating pain and suffering associated with serious illness and thereby empowering patients and families to live their lives. Evidence shows that patients undergoing palliative care for lung cancer lived nearly three months longer than those receiving chemotherapy.”

Pinkin’s claims are supported by the American Cancer Society, which points out studies demonstrating the benefits of palliative care, including that patients who received hospital-based palliative care required less time in intensive care units and had lower rates of hospital readmission. Additionally, studies have also shown that individuals experiencing chronic illnesses had less severe symptoms, such as pain, nausea, shortness of breath, and depression, after receiving palliative care, which leads to a better quality of life. Palliative care may also increase survival rates.