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Why Palliative Care?
In recent years, more and more patients facing a serious illness have turned to the complimentary discipline of palliative care to help cope with the physical and emotional demands of their condition. Because communication is critical in assisting patients and loved ones through what are often difficult treatment decisions, palliative care is the ideal discipline for MedStar Washington Hospital Center attending physician Clint Pettit, MD, who chose medicine as a career in part because he enjoys talking with people.
When dealing with an illness of his own as an undergraduate engineering student at Tulane University in New Orleans, Dr. Pettit found that he enjoyed interacting with the physicians who helped him understand his course of treatment and recovery.
“I still wanted to do something in science,” he says, “but I liked the people aspect of medicine. So, I switched my major to biochemistry.”
After returning to his hometown of Omaha to earn a medical degree at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Dr. Pettit began a residency in internal medicine at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. There, he embraced the difficult task of helping patients and family members navigate through the medical system in a way that respected their wishes and helped them achieve their goals.
Palliative Care and Common Misconceptions
Dr. Pettit admits that palliative care is often perceived as a “depressing” field because all too many cases deal with end-of-life issues. But, he insists, that’s only one aspect of what is a multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary area of medicine.
“Palliative care emphasizes quality of life at any stage of serious illness and treatment,” Dr. Pettit explains. “We collaborate with the patients’ primary physicians and other specialists on treatment strategies, including managing pain and other symptoms, to help make the patient as comfortable as possible. We also provide counseling to help patients and loved ones cope with an illness’s emotional stress, and help them plan for post-hospital care.”
Dr. Pettit believes that with time and experience, palliative care will become better understood among both patients and other medical professionals. As research is one way to bridge the information gap, Dr. Pettit is studying how rapid response team nurses can better identify potential candidates for palliative care.
“We want to see if getting palliative care involved earlier in a hospitalization will have a positive effect on outcomes,” he says.
Dr. Pettit is also chairing the Clinical Competency Committee for MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s upcoming Hospice and Palliative Medicine fellowship program, which will help bring more newly minted physicians to the field.
Life Outside the Hospital
Because palliative medicine can be as emotionally draining as any other field of medicine, Dr. Pettit strives to maintain a balanced outlook through exercise, hiking and playing classical guitar. Yet even when confronted with a difficult case, Dr. Pettit and his team remain committed to finding a way forward.
“Difficult situations exist whether we like it or not,” Dr. Pettit says. “We try to face these situations head on, to make sure patients and their families always feel comfortable, supported, and respected, even when the medical outcome isn’t something we would have hoped for.”