COPD Awareness Month: Hospice Referral Guidelines
By: Laura Mantine, MD
Chronic lung disease is the 4th most common cause of death among older adults in the United States. More than 3 million people worldwide died of COPD in 2015, representing 6% of all deaths that year. People dying from COPD frequently experience difficult and uncomfortable symptoms that lead to distress and panic. They commonly have disabling respiratory symptoms including severe breathlessness, limited tolerance for activity, and intractable coughing. They are also usually oxygen dependent, often experience anorexia with weight loss, cachexia, and ultimately become dependent on others for their activities of daily living.
COPD and Hospice Care
Despite the symptomatic needs of individuals dying from end-stage COPD, only 30% of individuals receive hospice care before death. It is not clear why the rate of hospice use for patients with COPD is so low, but several explanations have been offered. The most important may be that few patients with severe COPD have discussed end-of-life planning with their clinician. Furthermore, many patients and clinicians do not view COPD as a terminal illness and feel it is more chronic in nature. Also, there may be a lack of awareness that patients enrolled in hospice can continue to receive treatments for COPD. Due to the fluctuating course of COPD, it is often difficult to accurately estimate a patient’s life expectancy which may contribute to low hospice utilization rates.
Hospice Eligibility Guidelines for COPD
While end-of-life-care is an appropriate topic to discuss with all patients, several factors have been suggested that should prompt a discussion with patients who have severe COPD. One factor is simply that a clinician would not be surprised if a patient with COPD were to die within the next 6-12 months. A clinician should consider hospice referral in a patient with COPD if they are dyspneic at rest or with minimal exertion, have progressed to the point where they spend most of their days at home, have experienced repeated ED visits (one or more each quarter) due to infection or episodes of respiratory failure, have endured repeated hospitalizations (one or more each quarter) and no longer wish to be admitted and the patient no longer wishes to be intubated.
The major hospice eligibility guidelines for COPD are:
- dyspnea at rest and/or with minimal exertion while on oxygen therapy
- dyspnea unresponsive or poorly responsive to bronchodilator therapy
- progression of chronic pulmonary disease as evidenced by frequent use of medical services
- frequent episodes of bronchitis or pneumonia
- unintentional weight loss of ≥ 10% body weight over the preceding six months
- progressive inability to independently perform various activities of daily living (ADLs)
There are other important clinical factors that also may support a patient’s hospice eligibility. These are:
- cor pulmonale
- need for continuous oxygen therapy
- resting tachycardia > 100 beats/minute
Abnormal laboratory findings may also trigger a hospice referral such as:
- FEV1 ≤ 30% predicted post-bronchodilator
- serial decreases in FEV1 of at least 40 ml/year over several years
- PO2 ≤ 55 on room air
- O2 sat. ≤ 88% on room air or persistent hypercarbia (PCO2) ≥ 50 mm HG
While these laboratory studies may be helpful to the clinician when considering patient appropriateness for hospice services, they are not required for patient admission.
How Hospice Can Help COPD Patients
COPD is a significant health issue around the world. It is ultimately a fatal disease and patients are under-referred to hospice care. Hospice, with its strong interdisciplinary approach, has been shown to improve quality of life for patients with end-stage respiratory disorders like COPD.
Hospice Eligibility for Patients with COPD. Serena J. Scott, MD, Barry D. Weiss, MD, Ellyn Lee, MD, College of Medicine, University of Arizona. https://uofazcenteronaging.com. June 2017.
When to refer patients with advanced COPD to palliative care services. Rebecca Strutt. Breathe (Sheff). 2020 Sep; 16(3): 200061.
Referral to palliative care in COPD and other chronic diseases: A population-based study. Kim Beernaert; Joachim Cohen; Luc Deliens; Dirk Devroey; Katrien Vanthomme; Koen Pardon; Lieve Van den Block. Respiratory Medicine. Volume 107. Issue 11, P1731-1739. November 1, 2013.