Oncologists May Be Too Quick to Refer Patients to Palliative Care

Sarah F. D'Ambruoso, NP

January 19, 2023

I recently met Jane, a 53-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer. She was referred to me by the breast oncology team, which routinely refers all metastatic patients to our palliative care clinic.

Clocking in at under 20 minutes, my consultation with Jane might have been one of my shortest on record. Not only had the breast oncology team already addressed Jane's symptoms, which mainly consisted of hot flashes and joint pain attributable to treatment with an aromatase inhibitor, but they had already started planning ahead for the future of her illness. Jane had completed an advance directive and had a realistic and hopeful perspective on how her illness would progress. She understood the goal of her treatment was to "keep the cancer asleep," as she put it, and she was very clear about her own goals: to live long enough to see her granddaughter graduate from high school in 2 years and to take a long-awaited trip to Australia later in 2023.

There wasn't much for me to do. In fact, I daresay that Jane really did not need to see a palliative care specialist because the primary palliative care she was receiving from the breast oncology team was superb. Jane was receiving excellent symptom management from a nurse practitioner and oncologist, plus a social worker provided her with coping strategies. She was already having conversations with her primary medical team and her family about what to expect in the future and how to plan ahead for all possible outcomes.

When should a patient be referred to palliative care?

Integrating palliative care into routine oncologic care need not always require the time and skill of a palliative care team for every patient. Oncology providers can provide basic palliative care services without consulting a palliative care specialist.

For example, if a primary care doctor tried to refer every patient with hypertension to cardiology, the cardiologist would probably say that primary care should be able to handle basic hypertension management. In my experience from working in an oncology clinic for the past 9 years, I've found that oncology providers don't need to refer every advanced cancer patient to our palliative care program. Most oncologists have good communication skills and are more than capable of managing symptoms for patients.

But don't get me wrong. I'm not discouraging referrals to palliative care, instead I'm suggesting the careful triage of patients.

Palliative care for all?

In 2010, Jennifer S. Temel MD, published a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine that demonstrated significant improvements in quality of life and mood in patients with metastatic lung cancer who received concurrent palliative care. After the study was published many voices inside oncology and palliative care began to advocate for a "palliative care for all" approach to patients with metastatic disease. But this is often interpreted as "specialty palliative care for all," rather than its original intended meaning that all patients with metastatic disease receive the essential elements of palliative care (biopsychosocial symptom support and conversations about goals of care) either through their primary oncology teams or, if needed, specialty palliative care teams.

The fact is that most specialty palliative care clinics do not have the manpower to meet the needs of all patients with advanced cancers, much less all patients living with serious illness. A main goal of integrating palliative care into routine outpatient health care has always been (and in my opinion, should continue to be) to enhance the primary palliative care skills of specialists, such as oncologists and cardiologists, who care for some of our sickest patients.

This could take many forms. For one, it can be helpful to screen patients for palliative care needs. The American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer mandates distress screening for all patients as a condition of accreditation. Distress screening using a validated tool such as the National Comprehensive Cancer Network Distress Thermometer can differentiate patients who have minimal distress and may not need much additional support beyond what is provided by their oncology team from those whose distress feels unmanageable and overwhelming.

In terms of primary palliative care symptom management, most oncology teams I work with are comfortable prescribing basic medications for pain, nausea, constipation, and anxiety. They're also comfortable referring oncology patients for nutrition needs while undergoing chemotherapy as well as to social work and spiritual care for emotional support and counseling.

Oncology teams should continually work on communications skills. They should use "Ask, Tell, Ask" to elicit prognostic awareness, convey critical information, and assess for recall and understanding at pivotal points in the cancer journey, such as when the disease progresses or the patient's clinical condition changes. They should practice a normalizing script they can use to introduce advance care planning to their patients in the first few visits. When I meet with a patient for the first time, I usually begin by asking if they have prepared an advanced directive. If not, I ask if they've thought about who will make medical decisions for them should the need arise. If the patient has documented in writing their preference for care in an emergency situation, I ask for a copy for their chart.

When should patients be referred to a specialty palliative care program?

I tell our oncology teams to involve me after they have tried to intervene, but unsuccessfully because of the patient having intractable symptoms, such as pain, or the disease is not responding to treatments. Or, because there are significant communication or health literacy barriers. Or, because there are challenging family dynamics that are impeding progress in establishing goals of care.

A physician should refer to specialty palliative care when there are multiple comorbid conditions that impact a patient's prognosis and ability to tolerate treatments. These patients will need detailed symptom management and nuanced conversations about the delicate balance of maintaining quality of life and trying to address their malignancy while also avoiding treatments that may do more harm than good.

At the end of the day, all patients with serious illnesses deserve a palliative care approach to their care from all of their clinicians, not just from the palliative care team. By continuously honing and implementing primary palliative care skills, oncology teams can feel empowered to meet the needs of their patients themselves, strengthening their bond with their patients making truly patient-centered care much more likely.

Ms. D'Ambruoso is a hospice and palliative care nurse practitioner for UCLA Health Cancer Care, Santa Monica, Calif.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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