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Hospice care doesn't have to start at the end of life

Posted May 22
Updated May 26

Among more than 1.6 million Americans who received hospice services, 50.3 percent were on hospice care for 14 days or less – and 35.5 percent received care only seven days or less.

This story was written for our sponsor, Transitions LifeCare.

The scenario plays out thousands of times across America every day. A beloved family member, after battling a serious illness or disease for months or years, is approaching death's door.

A family caregiver or the physician’s office calls a hospice provider to keep the patient comfortable during this challenging time.

In a matter of days, or sometimes a matter of hours, the loved one dies peacefully with pain and other symptoms under control.

Hospice care can offer so much more if patients begin services and support earlier in the progression of the illness rather than waiting until death is imminent.

"Many people think about hospice only in terms of dying in a better way," said Edo Banach, president and CEO of National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. "Yet, hospice used properly is about living in a better way for months before the final breath."

In fact, Medicare and other insurance providers typically cover hospice care in full for up to six months, and may cover an extended period if physicians re-evaluate patients and determine they are still appropriate for hospice.

However, among more than 1.6 million Americans who received hospice services, 50.3 percent were on hospice care for 14 days or less -- and 35.5 percent received care only seven days or less -- according to NHPCO's Facts and Figures, 2015 Edition. Those lengths of service are merely a fraction of the 180 days of hospice care Medicare allows.

Living more fully with earlier hospice care

Barbara Pease, diagnosed with incurable cancer and a former patient of Transitions HospiceCare, attested to the benefits of hospice expertise over a period of months.

"Lots of us were under the misperception that if I were medicated with pain medicine, I was going to be out of it and not alert," Pease said. "This is not the case. The doctor prescribed pain medication for me and I'm pain-free, alert and doing fine right now."

Keeping pain and symptoms under control enabled Pease to continue enjoying her life.

"I went on a plane flight; actually, I flew the plane with the pilot," she said. "That was one of my wishes and Transitions HospiceCare was instrumental in making the arrangements to give me that experience. Their volunteers also come and drive me from my home to a senior center where I can visit with friends."

We wish we had contacted hospice sooner"

"Not getting their loved one enrolled in hospice care sooner is really the only consistent regret we hear from families when they’re evaluating their experience," said Deb Norcross, RN, CHPN, director of hospice and home health for Transitions LifeCare.

Norcross added, "Until families see first-hand how big a difference hospice care can make, they don't understand all the advantages we can provide."

"One of the biggest misperceptions," Norcross said, "is that hospice care becomes the last resort when 'nothing else can be done.' Hospice care doesn't mean that treatment stops. It means the types of treatment and goals of care change to things like managing pain and other symptoms while helping patients reach their goals in the time that's left."

Families shouldn't hesitate to contact a hospice provider to discuss their loved one's condition, challenges of living with an illness and the benefits hospice can provide, according to Norcross.

"It's better to get a professional assessment early and begin care as soon as appropriate rather than waiting and regretting hospice care was started too late," she said.

This story was written for our sponsor, Transitions LifeCare.

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