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What Does Supportive Care Medicine Mean for Patient-Centered Care?

Providers acknowledge that healthcare is about more than the treatments administered. Supportive care medicine offers wraparound care that helps patients navigate illness.

With the rise of patient-centered care philosophies, healthcare organizations have learned that they need to do more than order tests and administer treatments. Creating a valuable patient experience means serving the whole person, giving rise to supportive care medicine.

Defined by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) as “Care given to improve the quality of life of people who have an illness or disease by preventing or treating, as early as possible, the symptoms of the disease and the side effects caused by treatment of the disease,” supportive care medicine runs the gamut of physical and emotional well-being.

Supportive care medicine came to rise in the 1960s and 1970s when chemotherapy transformed the way patients receive treatment for cancer. Although chemotherapy significantly increased the odds of cancer survival, its toxicity to much of the body can cause serious patient experience and quality of life challenges, according to a news article from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

“The ‘supportive care’ movement formed in response to these negative treatment experiences and dedicated itself to finding ways to minimize treatment toxicities,” the ASCO News article said.

In a technical sense, supportive care medicine can refer to the pain management offered to cancer patients. Supportive care management guidelines might look at how cancer patients can access opioids for pain management or other complementary pain management techniques, like acupuncture.

But many healthcare organizations boast supportive care management departments that go beyond pain management. Supportive care management has come to include patients’ emotional and spiritual needs, culminating in true patient-centered care.

Below, PatientEngagementHIT outlines the ins and outs of supportive care medicine and its role in patient-centered care.

Who receives supportive care medicine?

Typically, individuals with serious illnesses receive supportive care medicine. This usually means patients with cancer.

Supportive care medicine simply means that members of the patient care team are focused on identifying and fulfilling the needs of seriously ill patients, according to OSF Healthcare, a health system serving Illinois and Michigan. An article for the organization defining supportive care medicine cautions against equating the practice to end-of-life care.

“Supportive care simply means that the focus of treatment is what is important to the patient,” the organization wrote in a Q&A-style article. “Sometimes, that means that aggressive measures are no longer part of the plan. Sometimes, it means a patient is ready to enter hospice care. Sometimes they are still getting very aggressive medical interventions.”

OSF Healthcare emphasized that supportive care medicine should start at the beginning of cancer care, indicating that it’s an element of care for all patients. This helps prevent adverse experiences from arising in the future, highlighting a proactive rather than reactive model to promote good quality of life.

Who delivers supportive care medicine?

There is no one-size-fits-all supportive care medicine team. As noted above, supportive care medicine began with the goal of promoting pain management for individuals undergoing aggressive chemotherapy and cancer treatment.

But many healthcare organizations boast a multidisciplinary team to attend to other physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients. Those teams can include both clinical and non-clinical workers, such as:

  • Licensed clinical social workers
  • Patient care navigators
  • Community health workers
  • Community-based social services
  • Primary care providers
  • Nutritionists
  • Therapists
  • Pain medicine specialists
  • Spiritual advisors
  • Palliative care specialists

Not every hospital’s supportive care medicine team is going to have the same profile. Depending on patient demographics and population health needs, hospitals may employ more community health workers and care navigators to help patients with the logistics of health insurance and the healthcare industry. Others might have a larger spiritual advisory council.

Are supportive care medicine, palliative care the same?

While some healthcare professionals use supportive care medicine and palliative care interchangeably—American Cancer Society maintains that both palliative care and supportive care medicine can be given at any time during the cancer care journey—others have noted that the two terms are distinct.

That may be due to the connotations associated particularly with palliative care. Palliative care often only comes at the end of the patient’s life and this therefore often associated with ending treatment or “giving up.”

Both the ASCO News article and OSF Healthcare acknowledged that supportive care medicine simply sounds like how all of medicine should be.

“Although no one would object to ‘supportive care interventions aimed at relieving cancer-related pain and distress, many patients, families, and providers hesitate to seek ‘palliative care’ because they mistakenly fear it is akin to giving up on treatment,” the ASCO News article explained.

Said simply, “supportive care management” might be a more amenable phrase to the broad cancer patient population than “palliative care,” even if the two practices have similar philosophies. Words matter, and choosing to say “supportive care management” could make for a better experience for patients and families.

What is the impact of supportive care medicine?

Supportive care medicine is not just the right thing to do for cancer patients; studies have also indicated that it can improve clinical outcomes.

An August 2021 article published as part of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation (CMMI) found that patients with cancer who received supportive care medicine—which entailed routine electronic biopsychosocial screening, early access to specialty palliative care, and nurse care coordination—saw fewer emergency department visits, unplanned admissions, and fewer total hospitalization stays. Additionally, they saw better quality of life scores.

Notably, it may take a little while to reap the full benefits of supportive care medicine. A separate study in Cancer Medicine showed that quality of life did not improve immediately after breast and gynecologic cancer patients receive supportive care management, but it did improve around six months later. The researchers said this was likely because patients became better at disease self-management, a skill that needed to build over time.

These outcomes are essential as healthcare embraces patient-centered and value-based care. Supportive care medicine has the potential to improve the healthcare experience and quality of life of seriously ill cancer patients. By identifying and meeting patients’ needs, the practice can reduce unnecessary healthcare utilization, both a satisfier to the patient and also a source of cost-savings.

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