Study at Aiken Regional takes a look at palliative care in rural communities

December 22, 2018

A new study taking place at Aiken Regional Medical Centers will seek to improve rural patients’ access to adequate palliative care, something millions of Americans are forced to go without.

That number is as high as 60 million, according to researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. That is why UAB is carrying out the study at three hospitals across the Southeast, including at Aiken Regional.

Palliative care is a type of medical treatment that aims to improve quality of life for people suffering from serious, and often terminal, illnesses such as Parkinson’s and cancer.

“By living in a rural area, people with serious illness have a very high risk of not getting the right care,” said Ronit Elk, the study’s co-principal investigator and the associate director of the Southeast Institute for Innovation in Palliative and Supportive Care at UAB. “There are long distances to treatment centers, not enough health care professionals, and of those who are health care providers, there are very few with palliative care clinical experience.”

Researchers are also interested in studying how culturally-sensitive palliative care can improve the lives of African-Americans, who frequently receive less adequate hospice and palliative care compared to white Americans, according to Elk.

According to a UAB press release, this is due to a “lack of exposure to palliative care” and a “different cultural perspective.”

“African-Americans often value faith, spiritual beliefs and the guidance of a pastor when coping with illness and making treatment decisions,” Elk said. “Yet physicians rarely ask patients about their spirituality. African-Americans’ reliance on hope and faith in God’s healing power can be at odds with the physician’s need to share a terminal prognosis.”

Elk is hoping to create a greater cultural understanding and to bridge the gaps between spirituality and health care in the study to make palliative care more accessible.

The study will involve using telehealth – the provision of healthcare remotely by technological means – to provide palliative care to rural communities, based out of rural hospitals like Aiken Regional.

According to the press release, the study will take a “team approach” to care, which will include a community advisory group, a hospitalist from each hospital and on-site care providers for the patients.

“This method is called community-based participation research, which is a method where academics partner with communities,” Elk said. “It has been proved over and over to reduce health disparities. The community advisory group guides the study.”

In the study, Elk and the researchers will compare quality of life of patients, family members and caregivers of those receiving palliative care in the study to those who receive only regular medical care.

The study group is made up of 352 hospitalized patients, both white and African-American, in Aiken Regional and two other hospitals in Mississippi and Alabama.

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