Sunday, December 19, 2010

We Need More

I've stayed away from writing about health care policy -- there are plenty of people out there far better as policy wonks than I could ever be -- but a recent editorial in the Journal of Palliative Medicine calls out for comment. The writer was Dr. Sean Morrison, a leader in the effort to bring hospice and palliative care into the mainstream of American medicine. Dr. Morrison notes that many American medical schools now teach palliative care principles. But the so-called hidden curriculum often works at cross-purposes and devalues the practice of palliative medicine.

You know what the hidden curriculum means. If you've ever heard something like, "Now that you've finished your training, we'll teach you what it's really like to do this job," well, that's the voice of the hidden curriculum. Physicians in training are highly influenced by the words and deeds of their senior instructors and mentors. If those doctors give no more than lip service to the core mission of palliative care -- relieving suffering, helping articulate goals, guiding patients and families through transitions -- then the younger generation will do the same. Monkey see, monkey do.

The palliative care workforce is still too small for the workload. Here are some remarkable numbers that Dr. Morrison cites:
  • There is one cardiologist for every 71 persons experiencing a heart attack
  • And there is one oncologist for every 141 patients diagnosed with cancer
  • But there is only one palliative medicine physician for every 31,000 persons living with a serious, life-threatening illness
Palliative care works. Whether delivered through hospice or not, palliative care programs "reduce symptoms, improve doctor-patient-family communication and satisfaction with care, [and] enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of hospital services," Dr. Morrison writes. To this hospice and palliative medicine specialist, that sounds like an important part of the effort to improve the American health care system's affordability, accessibility, and quality.

To counteract the hidden curriculum, we're going to need a lot more help.


  1. There is a need for medical professionals to learn more "soft skills" in care. I'd love to talk to you about a program that Spertus is offering this summer called Health and Healing in Judaism, designed to discuss these very topics.
    Find out more at

  2. Regarding, "there is only one palliative medicine physician for every 31,000 persons living with a serious, life-threatening illness". I think med school is the place to start but how do we train the current work force? We are getting there slowly but to see the numbers is quite eye opening. Thanks for your post. I always learn a new way of looking at things.

  3. You make a hospice and palliative medicine specialist by having her take a one-year fellowship. Funding for most fellowships in most specialties comes from Medicare. In the current economic climate, I don't know if there's new money for new kinds of doctors. Scarcity always breeds conflict, it seems to me.