Suicide Prevention:

Efforts to Increase Research and Education in Palliative Care

HEHS-98-128: Published: Apr 30, 1998. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 1998.

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Bernice Steinhardt
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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reported on the extent to which projects under section 781 of the Public Health Service Act have furthered the knowledge and practice of palliative care, particularly with regard to curricula offered and used in medical schools. GAO's preliminary work showed that no fiscal year (FY) 1998 funding for section 781 projects would be awarded by its April 30, 1998 reporting date, so GAO focused on determining: (1) the extent to which the physician education and training process currently teaches and tests student competency in palliative care issues; (2) the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) plans for funding palliative care projects under section 781; and (3) other federal and private palliative care research and education initiatives.

GAO noted that: (1) physicians receive varying amounts of instruction in palliative care topics as they progress through 4 years of medical school and 3 to 8 years of subsequent specialized training in a residence program; (2) each of the seven palliative care areas in GAO's survey was required by 56 percent or more of the 125 medical schools responding to its survey; (3) similarly, about half of the 7,787 specialty and subspecialty residency programs educated students in end-of-life care; (4) GAO's survey showed that many medical schools are interested in providing additional instruction and training in palliative care; (5) about one-third of the schools reported a need to change their curriculum for addressing palliative care for the chronically and terminally ill; (6) close to half reported a need to include more clinical training in managing pain and depression for these patient populations; (7) HHS officials plan to use $150,000 of the $452,000 specified for section 781 in the FY 1998 appropriations conference report to support seven medical education research projects, including one palliative care project; (8) officials from HHS and the medical education research center receiving these funds were not able to specify the amount being spent on the palliative care project because separate budgets are not developed for each project; (9) of the remaining section 781 funds, all $302,000 will be used to support research for improving the distribution and diversity of the health care workforce; (10) because of the higher priority that HHS has assigned to this other research, officials do not plan to use any funds for palliative care research, training, or demonstration projects in 1999; (11) nevertheless, a substantial amount of research related to palliative care is being funded in ways other than through section 781; (12) over the last few years, HHS and private entities have invested tens of millions of dollars into projects similar to those specified in the Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act; (13) some HHS agencies have more general projects, not specified in the act, that could also benefit palliative care in the areas of increasing health care access, improving quality of care, and advancing biomedical research; and (14) private foundations and other private organizations have spent millions of dollars to educate and train health care professionals in palliative care and improve the quality of care for the terminally and chronically ill.

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