According to the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC), an estimated six million Americans could benefit from palliative care, an interdisciplinary medical specialty focused on improving quality of life for people living with serious illness by providing relief from their associated symptoms and stress.
Launched in late 2020, the new Palliative Care Program at Richmond University Medical Center in Staten Island is achieving just that – providing the targeted care that is helping patients and their families better understand serious and complex health conditions, manage pain and anxiety, and optimize their quality of life.
“Palliative care is something that touches every aspect of medicine,” explained Thomas J. Forlenza, MD, MS, FAAHPM, chief of Palliative Care at Richmond University Medical Center. “Our program is founded on the premise that very difficult and complicated health care decisions should not have to be made alone. Our multidisciplinary team is highly experienced, takes a compassionate approach, and is able to support patients and their families through the more difficult aspects of disease.”
Enhancing Quality of Life
Dr. Forlenza is quick to note a significant difference between the terms ‘hospice’ and ‘palliative’ care.
“Hospice is now a subset of palliative care and refers to care provided when active treatment can no longer achieve its intended goal,” he said. “Hospice focuses on lifestyle changes needed when one cannot ‘beat a disease’ and must adjust to a new reality. Palliative care eases an individual into a disease that may change their lifestyle if not tempered.
“Usually when served by a hospice program, the individual is felt to have six months or less to live,” added Dr. Forlenza, “while palliative care is offered at any point in a disease.
“While hospice helps individuals live as best as they can until the end of their lives, palliative care helps individuals adjust to the limitations of their disease and live as best as they can through whatever disease process they have,” Dr. Forlenza further explained. “In palliative care, doctors and patients work together to fight the patient’s disease and explore new treatments. Hospice is not a necessary consequence of palliative care.”
A Powerful New Program
Though Richmond University Medical Center has had a formal hospice program since 1989, “our new Palliative Care Program is six months old and consists of a team including myself, a nurse practitioner, a social worker, and local clerical/spiritual leaders,” Dr. Forlenza said. “Working together, we educate patients and families about their disease and our program, help to define the patient’s goals, and collaborate to improve the patient’s and family’s experience relative to the new medical conditions or challenges they’re adjusting to.
“Since the launch of our Palliative Care Program last fall, our team has treated nearly 90 patients managing everything from cancer, COPD, and congestive heart failure to COVID-19, cardiac arrest, dementia, and failure to thrive,” shared Dr. Forlenza. “All of these patients had the benefit of family meetings and discussions of treatment plans with our medical team and, while some were ultimately referred to hospice based on their stage of disease, dozens received the extra help and targeted care they needed to return home and live their lives,” he said. “Through our Palliative Care Program, we now have a formal mechanism to refer patients for proper services, provide more aggressive management of symptoms, and make patients more comfortable.”
As medical practitioners, “it’s about treating the complete person, not just the disease in front of us,” Dr. Forlenza said of the importance of palliative care. “Illness and pain affect a person’s entire life. I feel that if we can take positive steps to make their experience better, we’ve done more for the patient and their family than the simple treatment of a disease alone could ever accomplish. Palliative care shows love for the patient and is a reflection of the commitment between the doctor and the patient.”
Dr. Forlenza could not be happier about the role Richmond University Medical Center’s new Palliative Care Program will play in the Staten Island community.
“By helping patients make difficult decisions, address symptoms, seek to understand why they’re having pain, and help them find purpose, patients now have an extra layer of care and support that they didn’t have before,” he said. “Our program helps patients maintain personal dignity through their disease process and can truly help improve survival and enhance quality of life.”
Richmond University Medical Center is located at 355 Bard Ave. and can be reached at (844) 934-CARE or by visiting www.rumcsi.org. To contact the Pallaitive Care Program, call 718-818-4104 or visit www.rumcsi.org/palliativecare.