OU Offers Help with Details of Serious Illness

Sep 14, 2012

Tulsans dealing with a serious illness in their family might make a stop at OU-Tulsa today for some information about caring for a loved one who’s seriously sick.

An open house today will showcase a new center that will serve as a resource for people needing help navigating the healthcare system in that situation.

Palliative Care

The University of Oklahoma’s Dr. Jennifer Clarke says the basis for the practice of palliative medicine is simple.

“All of us suffer,” she said, “especially those who have to face illness.”

She includes physical, emotional and spiritual suffering.

“The practice of palliative medicine recognizes that suffering,” she explained. “What we do is we deliver a specialized level of care … in an interdisciplinary format, meaning that there is a group of physicians nurses, social workers, chaplains, should it be a child … therapists that are involved in caring for kids with complex illness, who look at a family and their patient, and how to treat not only their symptoms but also help them through the craziness that our medical system has become.”

The point she stresses about palliative medicine is that it is not synonymous with end-of-life care, or hospice.

“I will let you know we have these conversations with infants and parents that have children that aren’t born yet,” she said. “So that palliative medicine and its principals are for any stage of disease, any age of patient.”

New Opportunities

Dr. Clarke is Division Director for Palliative Medicine at OU’s School of Community medicine. She’s excited because recently, OU’s ability to provide palliative care has gotten a major boost.

“Here at OU, we’ve been fortunate enough that a private donation allowed us to open the OU Center for Palliative Care,” she said.

She says up until now, palliative care in Tulsa has been an inpatient practice. Providers come to you and your family when you’re in the hospital.

The new center is not clinical, but it will allow people to consult with palliative medicine professionals on advanced care planning—the nuts and bolts of things like power of attorney, living wills—before an emergency occurs.

Dr. Clarke gives examples: “How would I want to be cared for? Would I want a time trial in the hospitalization? Would I want to be home and be with my family?”

“The best time to talk about that,” she said, “is not when you’re in the throes of the emotional turmoil of an acute event. And so really sitting down and offering a place to have those conversations so that when the time comes, there’s a plan in place.”

“The anxiety that comes with not knowing that is somewhat mitigated,” she said.

Those conversations are at the heart of palliative care.

“Helping (patients) make decision that are most consistent with who they are based on their goals and value systems, so that they can live a full quality of life, how they determine what that is,” she said. “And it’s our job to articulate that to the rest of the healthcare team.”

Oklahoma Health

The opening of the new center is good news for Tulsa, which, perhaps not surprisingly given its other low health rankings, has scored among the bottom of states in terms of delivery of palliative care.

“Oklahoma is one of the bottom of five,” she said.

In the Center to Advance Palliative Care’s 2011 Report Card, she said, “we went from an F to a D … due to the work we’ve done here in Tulsa, which is really exciting, but Oklahoma still has a lot of work to do.”

Today, that work continues with an open house at the OU Center for Palliative Care.

It’s 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at the OU Tulsa Schusterman Center campus, in the Schusterman Clinic.

Clark says staff will be on hand to answer questions about advanced care planning and help with starting to fill out related paperwork.

“These conversations, if they’re not had, often lead to unnecessary procedures, often lead to family distress, in living in the unknown,” she said.

It’s that kind of stress that she and her fellow palliative care providers hope to be able to help people avoid.