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Date: June 19, 2001
Contacts: Saira Moini, Media Relations Officer
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>


Publication Announcement

Improving Symptom Control and End-of-Life Care
For Cancer Patients Requires Stronger Federal Leadership

This year, about 550,000 people will die from cancer. At least half of them will experience a range of distressing physical and psychological symptoms, such as pain, breathing difficulties, and depression, during the course of their disease. Clinicians and hospitals too often are not prepared to handle such problems, particularly among cancer patients who are dying. With federal research and training efforts centering largely on trying to cure patients with cancer, not enough has been done to further the field of palliative care, which focuses on relieving symptoms throughout the course of disease. It is particularly important for patients who are nearing death, when symptoms are often most severe.

Steps to overcome barriers that keep cancer patients from receiving adequate symptom control and supportive therapies are proposed in a new report from the National Cancer Policy Board of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council. Changes are required across the health care system, the report says. Government agencies must allocate research funding for developing better interventions for managing cancer symptoms, and public and private insurers must re-examine their coverage of palliative care services. The board expanded on its 1999 recommendations about ensuring quality care for cancer patients, and on those made in a 1997 IOM report on end-of-life care, which was the first comprehensive, evidence-based report on these issues. This new report focuses on management of cancer-related symptoms and timely referral to palliative and hospice care.

Few health care professionals are trained in palliative or end-of-life care, the board found. Compounding this situation are certain attributes of the health care system, particularly reimbursement policies for palliative and hospice care and disparities in care across various socioeconomic and age groups. Palliative care for children, for example, is far from satisfactory. In addition, little reliable information exists on quality of life and quality of care for patients.

The National Cancer Institute (NCI), the federal government's leader in cancer research and training, should step up its commitment to research aimed at improving symptom control and palliative care, the board recommended. In 1999 NCI spent $26 million of its $2.9 billion annual budget -- less than 1 percent -- on research and training related to palliative and end-of-life care. NCI can take a number of steps to improve this situation: It should mandate research on palliative care and symptom control by any health facility seeking to retain or achieve NCI recognition as a Comprehensive Cancer Center, and should designate certain places as "centers of excellence" in palliative care. These centers would carry on a range of activities, such as evaluating practice guidelines, developing and assessing measures of the quality of palliative care, disseminating information to professionals and the public, increasing access to care for members of minority groups, and providing training for clinicians at all levels.

Coverage of palliative and hospice care for cancer patients is undermined by a system that focuses either on active treatment or on palliative or hospice care, and does not readily allow these approaches to be integrated, the report says. For example, the Medicare hospice benefit allows enrollment of patients only if they are expected to survive six months or less, and it does not cover potentially life-prolonging treatment in addition to palliative care -- thereby making hospice enrollment tantamount to accepting death, an obvious deterrent for many patients. The Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), the federal agency responsible for Medicare, should fund demonstration projects to devise better ways to deliver and reimburse palliative care for cancer patients when and where they need it. HCFA should focus particular attention on fixing problems with the hospice benefit.

The committee's recommendations were informed by eight papers commissioned as part of the study. This set of papers focuses on economic issues and barriers to high-quality end-of-life care for cancer patients, informational resources for patients and family members, palliative care for African-American patients and other vulnerable populations, special issues in caring for dying children, practice guidelines for clinicians on managing patients' psychosocial and physical symptoms, research on reducing cancer patients' distress, and training for health care professionals.

A roster of the board members follows. The study was sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Cancer Society. The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council are private, nonprofit organizations that provide advice on science and health policy issues under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.

Read the full text of Improving Palliative Care for Cancer: Summary and Recommendations for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or by calling (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


National Cancer Policy Board

Arnold J. Levine, Ph.D.1,2 (chair)
Rockefeller University
New York City

Joseph Simone, M.D. (vice chair)
Senior Clinical Director
Huntsman Cancer Foundation and Institute
University of Utah
Salt Lake City

Ellen L. Stovall (vice chair)
President and Chief Executive Officer
National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship
Silver Spring, Md.

Diana Petitti, M.D. (vice chair)
Director, Research and Evaluation
Kaiser Permanente of Southern California

Tim Byers, M.D., M.P.H.
Professor of Epidemiology and Program Leader
Clinical Cancer Prevention & Control
University of Colorado Health Sciences Center

Vivien W. Chen, Ph.D.
Epidemiology Section Chief and Professor
Medical Center
Louisiana State University
New Orleans

Susan Curry, Ph.D.
Director, Center for Health Studies
Group Health Cooperative of Puget Sound

Norman Daniels, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy
Tufts University
Newton, Mass.

Kathleen Foley, M.D.1,2
Project on Death in America
The Open Society and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
New York City

Thomas Kelly, M.D., Ph.D.1,2
Boury Professor and Chairman
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Mark McClellan, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Economics
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

William McGuire, M.D.2
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
UnitedHealth Group
Minnetonka, Minn.

John Mendelsohn, M.D.2
University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center

Monica Morrow, M.D.
Professor of Surgery, and
Director, Lynn Sage Comprehensive Breast Program
Northwestern University Medical School

Nancy Mueller, Sc.D.
Professor of Epidemiology
Harvard University School of Public Health

Pilar N. Ossorio, Ph.D., J.D.
Assistant Professor of Law and Medical Ethics, and
Associate Director for Programming
Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in Medicine
University of Wisconsin Law School

Cecil B. Pickett, Ph.D.2
Executive Vice President
Discovery Research
Schering-Plough Research Institute
Kenilworth, N.J.

John Seffrin, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer
American Cancer Society

Sandra Millon Underwood, R.N., Ph.D., RAAN
School of Nursing
University of Wisconsin

Frances Visco, J.D.
National Breast Cancer Coalition
Washington, D.C.

Susan Weiner, Ph.D.
The Children's Cause
Silver Spring, Md.


Hellen Gelband
Study Director

1 Member, National Academy of Sciences
2 Member, Institute of Medicine