Considering questions about end-of-life care

By • Published: August 5th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

If you knew you were dying, would it happen faster? Does staying in a hospital’s intensive care unit or opting for palliative care affect the length of time a person survives?

Many of us will face a terminal illness… our own, or someone else’s… at some point in our lives. When we do, questions like these can seem daunting to consider. They’re certainly not easy topics to discuss. But new information published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology might give you some helpful insight in a tough time.

Seeking answers to these questions, a team of Korean researchers studied the cases of nearly five-hundred cancer patients after they learned their illnesses were terminal.

About a third of these people opted to receive palliative care, which focuses on relieving symptoms and making the patient comfortable instead of trying to cure the disease. In Korea, this type of care is available at medical facilities but not at homes, as it is in the U.S. Despite years of suspicion by some experts that palliative care speeds death, the researchers found that enrolling in a palliative care program did not decrease the median length of time these patients survived.

However, they did find that patients who received care in a hospital ICU tended to die sooner than those in palliative care. The scientists found that other factors, including overall health, also contributed to quicker deaths.

One thing that did not factor in was patients’ awareness that they were dying. The researchers concluded that a patient’s recognition of his or her upcoming death did not shorten survival time. They cited other studies showing that talking about one’s own prognosis, even death, can improve the quality of life for patients.

Every patient’s situation is different, but perhaps the lesson here is this: accepting death might make living at the end a little bit easier.