Palliative Care Consultation and the Transition to Hospice for Patients with End-Stage Cardiovascular Disease

Palliative care provides symptom management, psychosocial support, and facilitation of shared decision-making. Patients with cardiovascular disease at end of life suffer high symptom burden and face complex medical decisions. In recognition of the needs of heart failure (HF) patients, statements and guidelines1,2 recommend palliative care involvement, especially for patients with stage D HF. The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services have also mandated that palliative care specialists play a role in the care of patients considered for destination ventricular assist device (VAD) therapy. Nonetheless, few patients with HF receive formal palliative care. In a chart review of 1,320 patients admitted for HF, only 10% received palliative care consults. The mean time from palliative care consultation to death was 21 days.3 Only 19% of Medicare patients with HF accessed their hospice benefit before death.4

Challenges inherent in providing end-of-life care to the HF patient population include difficult prognostication and complexities in medical and device management.5 These aspects may serve as barriers to timely palliative care and prevent appropriate transfer to hospice, despite the life-limiting and highly symptomatic nature of end-stage cardiac disease.6

Difficulty in prognostication for HF patients has been well known since the Study to Understand Prognoses and Preferences for Outcomes and Risks of Treatments SUPPORT trials over 25 years ago.7,8 Despite the development of models that are accurate for populations, prognostication for individuals remains problematic.9 The unpredictable trajectory of HF complicates the ability to identify patients at end of life.5

Unlike cancer treatment where the distinction between curative and palliative treatment is important, cardiac medications and devices often provide the dual effect of symptom alleviation and life prolongation. Patients with HF may be offered an array of implanted device therapies including defibrillation, pacing, resynchronization, and ventricular support to prevent sudden cardiac death and to improve symptoms and quality of life. As patients approach end of life, withdrawal or modification of device therapies is appropriate according to patients' goals and preferences. Shocks in end of life are associated with pain, anxiety, poor quality of life, and increased mortality.10 On the other hand, withdrawal of pacing and resynchronization may result in worsening of symptoms and quality of life.11 Depending on patients' preferences, it may be reasonable to continue these functions even when defibrillation is deactivated. Patients with VADs may endure complications such as infection, bleeding, thrombotic events, and pump failure at any time after implantation.15 In addition, they face loss of decision-making capacity in the setting of a stroke.12

However, many device patients have never considered how to address device deactivation at the end of their lives or discussed it with their clinicians.14 Many cardiologists lack comfort in addressing implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) deactivation in particular,15 despite scientific statements recommending that circumstances in which device therapy would not align with patients' goals should be discussed at the time of implant.16

In light of these barriers, palliative care specialist involvement should be considered early in the disease process, but especially as patients face difficult decisions related to shifting focus from curative therapy to palliation and hospice.

According to Medicare hospice guidelines, hospice may be considered for HF patients 1) optimally treated or not a candidate for surgery and 2) New York Heart Association (NYHA) IV with symptoms at rest despite medical therapy, preferably with angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs). Other supporting factors include presence of symptomatic arrhythmias, refractory ventricular arrhythmias, history of cardiac arrest, history of syncope, or history of stroke due to cardiac embolism.18 Notably, one observational study found that patients with HF who were enrolled in hospice had a mean survival of 29 days longer than those not in hospice.19 Longer length of stay in hospice is also associated with improved symptom control and increased family satisfaction.20

Critical turning points in the course of a patient's illness often signal the need to address palliative care decisions and consider transition to hospice, including changes in symptoms, need for additional interventions, complications of therapies, and development of other life-limiting diseases such as dementia and cancer.21 Palliative care consultants assist with identifying these points and defining patient values, wishes, and goals, establishing the foundation for shared decision-making about foregoing and/or limiting interventions, and transitioning to hospice.22

In sum, given the complex prognostication and nuances in management of cardiac medications and devices, early and iterative collaboration between primary care clinicians, cardiologists, and other specialists ensures comprehensive end-of-life care for HF patients, particularly aiding appropriate transition to hospice.


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Keywords: Geriatrics, Angiotensin Receptor Antagonists, Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme Inhibitors, Anxiety, Arrhythmias, Cardiac, Cooperative Behavior, Death, Sudden, Cardiac, Defibrillators, Dementia, Embolism, Heart Failure, Heart-Assist Devices, Hospice Care, Hospices, Length of Stay, Life Support Care, Medicaid, Medicare, Neoplasms, Pain, Palliative Care, Patient Preference, Personal Satisfaction, Primary Health Care, Prognosis, Quality of Life, Referral and Consultation, Stroke, Syncope, Terminal Care, ACC Scientific Session Newspaper

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