Palliative care services are increasingly available to primary care physicians for both expert consultations and services to seriously ill patients. The United States now has more than 1400 hospital-based palliative care teams and more than 4700 hospice programs. We use an illustrative case of a palliative care hospitalization and intervention for a middle-aged man with severe pain from spinal metastases to discuss 4 key questions that a primary care physician faces in caring for the seriously ill patient with difficult symptom management: (1) Should I refer a patient to a hospital-based palliative care team or to hospice services for difficult symptom management? (2) If the patient is referred to a hospital-based palliative care team, what should I, as the primary care physician, expect? (3) When should I refer to hospice services a patient initially referred to a hospital-based palliative care team? and (4) How can I choose a hospice program that will provide competent, coordinated, and compassionate patient- and family-centered care? Primary care physicians now may choose among hospice programs, and the programs may vary in their quality of care. Validated tools to measure patient and family perceptions of the quality of hospice care are now available but progress in defining and measuring the quality of hospice care is still needed before actionable information will be available to guide the choice of hospice programs for physicians and consumers.
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