NORTON, Va. – Dr. Daryl Pierce, a medical oncologist with the Southwest Virginia Cancer Center, passionately believes palliative care isn’t about treating illnesses – it’s about taking care of patients.
This strong conviction motivated him to expand his knowledge base and attain board certification in hospice and palliative medicine through the American Board of Internal Medicine. He was already board-certified in medical oncology but viewed this latest credential as an opportunity to enhance his delivery of compassionate care.
“Palliative and hospice medicine is really fascinating,” Dr. Pierce said. “I pursued the certification because I wanted to know more. The longer a physician practices medicine, he or she is entrusted to handle more complicated cases. It’s important for me to keep learning so I can continue providing patients with the best care.”
Many people are familiar with hospice as a service to make the last segment of life more fulfilling and comfortable. Hospice care provides support at home for people in the end stages of progressive, incurable illnesses. Inpatient hospice care is an option for patients who have symptoms that can no longer be controlled at home.
Hospice provides effective management of pain and other symptoms and supportive services for patients and families. Caregivers address the physical, emotional, social and spiritual needs of patients and families to offer hope, comfort and support.
The concept of palliative care is not as well understood as hospice. Palliative care focuses on improving the lives of people of all ages who have serious, chronic and life-threatening conditions – including cancer, congestive heart failure, kidney failure, Alzheimer’s disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“With palliative care, a patient isn’t at the end of life,” Dr. Pierce said. “Palliative care means the patient has illnesses that require coordinated care.”
Part of coordinating palliative care means a team of doctors and nurses – and potentially social workers, counselors, chaplains and others who can assist – communicates clearly with one another, with other physicians and specialists and with patients to ensure patient comfort.
“It’s important to me to be able to explain what is happening to patients and to be able to understand how they feel and what they need,” Dr. Pierce said. “It’s also important for me to be able to bridge the gap between a primary care physician and sometimes multiple specialists who are providing care to a patient, often for multiple health issues. Communication is important in palliative care.”
As an oncologist with Southwest Virginia Cancer Center, which is part of the Wellmont Cancer Institute, Dr. Pierce helps patients with cancer control their symptoms not only from cancer, but from treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
Palliative care has proven especially important for cancer patients.
“There have been studies showing an increase in life expectancy for patients who received palliative care and chemotherapy,” Dr. Pierce said. “Patients who had palliative care and chemotherapy together lived longer than patients who received chemotherapy with no palliative care.”
Noting the increased training in palliative care in medical schools and the strong focus on patient-centered care, Dr. Pierce believes palliative medicine is a specialty that will continue to grow.
“Palliative care is all about addressing the little details that are so essential to a patient’s health,” he said. “It fills in the gaps with better communication and care, which enhances a patient’s quality of life tremendously.”