Changing minds about palliative care

Psychology researcher plans training network, offers 5 insights on easing pain

If the phrase "palliative care" makes you scared or anxious, you're not alone. But a Central Michigan University researcher wants to change your perspective.

Simply put, palliative care means relieving suffering without solving the cause of a condition. It's caring without curing, sometimes in the case of chronic or terminal illnesses. But because it's often associated with the approach of death, many patients and families are afraid to accept or even discuss palliative treatments.

James Gerhart
Jim Gerhart

Psychology faculty member Jim Gerhart is working with the College of Medicine and other partners in Michigan to create an online training community for doctors, nurses, psychologists and social workers. The aim is to increase understanding, acceptance and delivery of palliative care and help providers work productively with patients and families.

"We want to bring people together from around the state and create learning networks," he said. "They'll go from being classmates to being colleagues."

The scope of the effort is being planned this year for a pilot program next year.

"Palliative care provides people what they usually want the most from health care: the ability to feel better and do more of what matters to them," said Gerhart, director of the department's Pain, Stress and Symptom Management Lab. He studies the strong emotional reactions that can prevent patients in pain from receiving effective care.

"We get upset, we get scared, and our defense mechanisms come in," Gerhart said. "Patients may become depressed or anxious. Loved ones may pull away. Conversations about care may come to a halt. There's a whole lot of emotion going in a lot of directions."

Five reflections

Gerhart shared the following insights about palliative care and coping with serious illness:

  • People underestimate their ability to adapt to stress or illness and frequently surprise themselves with what they can handle. In a sense, we can all learn to get better at managing an illness. Providers of palliative care can help with this. In addition to expertise with medication, they can provide counseling, advice and encouragement, and connect you to other resources like spiritual care.
  • Sickness, stress and hurt are all part of being human. Treat yourself like you would treat family, friends or even a pet: with some love, compassion and good humor.
  • Managing any complex illness is easier with good communication. Let your health care providers know how you're really feeling. They have heard similar things and have many tools and resources to help you.
  • When a loved one gets ill, we often worry and want to protect and help them. Don't feel pressured to come up with solutions and fix all the problems. When dealing with an illness, we need someone to listen and be there, but we also need space to think and to have a sense of normalcy. Try to strike a balance of talking about the illness and about all other things that make your loved ones who they are.
  • Prevention is still the best medicine. Exercise, good sleep, healthy food and spending time in nature and with good people not only feels good in the moment but are investments for health in the long run. These healthy habits may need some tweaks in the case of a serious illness but can keep you feeling better and doing more.

In February, CMU honored Gerhart with a Provost's Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Activity for his studies, which have been published in palliative care and oncology journals.

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