Hospitals Embrace the Hospice Model

By Dennis Thompson
HealthDay Reporter
Sunday, January 7, 2007; 12:00 AM

SUNDAY, Jan. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Confronting death, even in a hospital, can be a terrifying ordeal.

Doctors scramble this way and that. Machines fill the air with odd sounds. Needles and tests poke and prod. Above all else, there can be a feeling of utter helplessness, a sense you no longer control your life.

But now, taking a page from the work of hospices, more U.S. hospitals are beginning to strive to make the end of life as natural and comfortable as they can. And a dignified death is becoming a greater priority in medical settings, particularly as the huge Baby Boom population faces its own mortality.

The number of hospitals offering hospice and palliative care has increased dramatically in recent years, from 632 in 2000 to 1,027 hospitals in 2003, according to a recent study.

"There's a recognition that it's the right thing to do for the patient and the family, that anyone with a terminal condition deserves good palliative support," said J. Donald Schumacher, president and chief executive officer of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, a charitable organization created in 1992 to broaden America's understanding of hospice through research and education.

This new interest in palliative care -- which strives to sustain the quality of life of patients, even if doctors are still striving to save them -- couldn't come too soon, said Dr. Sean Morrison, lead researcher of the study and vice chairman of research in the department of geriatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City.

"It's become clear that the care of people with serious illness in this country needs improvement," Morrison said. "Pain is still markedly under-treated in U.S. hospitals. Patients often receive care that goes against their wishes. Families are increasingly being burdened with the needs of their sick relatives in the setting of an unresponsive health-care system."

For decades, hospice programs have attempted to offer an alternative to dying in a cold, sterile hospital room.

Hospice care is designed to provide comfort and support to patients and their families when a person is stricken with a fatal and incurable illness, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. A hospice program addresses all symptoms of a disease, particularly a patient's pain and discomfort. Care also is given for the emotional, social and spiritual impact of the disease on the patient and his or her family and friends.

The first hospice program in the United States, The Connecticut Hospice Inc. in Branford, opened in March 1974. There are more than 4,000 today, with more than 400 hospice programs opening in the last 18 months alone, Schumacher said.

This rise in hospice care makes sense, given America's aging population.

The total population of elderly Americans is expected to double by the year 2030, when more than 70 million people will be over 65, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Aging.

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