Most US citizens die in acute care hospitals, often in physical pain, without attention to emotional and spiritual suffering. This represents an ethical failure of our current health-care system. The field of palliative medicine aims to address the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients with advanced disease. At the same time, a new specialty of hospitalists is emerging, providing care for acutely ill hospitalized patients, many of whom will die. Thus, the hospitalist may become the primary deliverer of palliative care. This presents many potential opportunities for dying patients and their families, including increased time and attention from a physician; enhanced knowledge and skills around the physical symptoms, and emotional and spiritual distress; perhaps more detached and therefore more accurate prognostication; and increased efficiency, leading to a more rapid discharge to home. Hospitalists could enhance the quality of care for the dying by emphasizing interdisciplinary communication and involvement of hospital-based health professionals to address emotional and spiritual distress and bereavement issues, as well as through specific quality-improvement efforts. Finally, hospitalists can provide strong role modeling of optimal care for dying patients and their families. When hospitalists are not selected and trained effectively around palliative care issues, the risks are great. Discontinuity of physicians can lead to miscommunication and misunderstanding (by professionals, patient, and family); disagreement about treatment focus (especially as it relates to a shift from curative to palliative); inappropriate deferring of advance care planning to the hospital setting; and, most worrisome, a lack of expertise in symptom control, communication skills, and attention to patient and family distress and the provision of emotional and spiritual support. This article evaluates the convergence of the 2 fields of palliative medicine and hospitalist medicine and reviews the opportunities for mutual education and improved patient care.
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