Background Early ambulatory palliative care (PC) is an emerging practice, and its key elements have not been defined. We conducted a qualitative analysis of data from a randomized controlled trial that demonstrated improved quality of life, mood, and survival in patients with newly diagnosed metastatic non–small cell lung cancer who received early PC integrated with standard oncologic care vs standard oncologic care alone. Our objectives were to (1) identify key elements of early PC clinic visits, (2) explore the timing of key elements, and (3) compare the content of PC and oncologic visit notes at the critical time points of clinical deterioration and radiographic disease progression.
Methods We randomly selected 20 patients who received early PC and survived within 4 periods: less than 3 months (n = 5), 3 to 6 months (n = 5), 6 to 12 months (n = 5), and 12 to 24 months (n = 5). We performed content analysis on PC and oncologic visit notes from the electronic health records of these patients.
Results Addressing symptoms and coping were the most prevalent components of the PC clinic visits. Initial visits focused on building relationships and rapport with patients and their families and on illness understanding, including prognostic awareness. Discussions about resuscitation preferences and hospice predominantly occurred during later visits. Comparing PC and oncologic care visits around critical time points, both included discussions about symptoms and illness status; however, PC visits emphasized psychosocial elements, such as coping, whereas oncologic care visits focused on cancer treatment and management of medical complications.
Conclusions Early PC clinic visits emphasize managing symptoms, strengthening coping, and cultivating illness understanding and prognostic awareness in a responsive and time-sensitive model. During critical clinical time points, PC and oncologic care visits have distinct features that suggest a key role for PC involvement and enable oncologists to focus on cancer treatment and managing medical complications.