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a blog from young economists at Nova SBE

Aren’t we underestimating palliative care?

It is true that the developments of health care, treatments, drugs and even cures have been increasing considerably with time, but that does not apply to every disease. Unfortunately there are still some chronicle diseases that urgently need a cure, but that specialists and technologies were not able to discover yet. For example, in Portugal, cancer already kills 24 thousand people, and according to World Health Organization, this number is about to increase by 34% until 2030, while in worldwide terms the number will reach the 13 million people.

Going a little bit deeper, in Portugal the number of cancer cases below 65 years old will most likely increase by 12% hence in older people the growth is about to reach the 40% mark.

The truth is that we live in an ageing population. In Portugal people over 65 represent almost 25% of the total population and this number is expected to increase to near 35% in 2050. In addition, the ageing index has been growing exponentially, to near 127%, which means that people over 65 are more than double of the ones until 14 years, and that should be a reason to be worried. To be worried first all because, as the Grossman Model predicts, the more older we are more healthcare we demand, and continuing at this pace, in a near future we will most likely not have enough active people to satisfy that demand.

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Nevertheless, if we join all the dots we get to the point I want to highlight. The number of chronicle diseases it is increasing, and science hasn’t found a solution for that yet. At the same time, population is getting older, which obviously accelerates the growth of the number of these diseases. So the question that we should rise is: if science cannot do anything for these patients, what can we do that is going to increase their utility, their well being, that at least gives them dignity and release them from pain in the phase that they are heading to death?

It is curious to know that according to INE 51,2% of people would prefer to die at home, but incredibly, 61,7% of the Portuguese actually end up dying at a hospital. At the end of the day, only 10 to 12% of the Portuguese have access to Palliative care, when about 60% need it. Palliative Care are, according to World Health Organization, “Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual”. Again, in Portugal there is only 1 to 1,5 domestic support services of palliative cares for 100.000 habitants and 80 to 100 beds per million of habitants (http://www.observaport.org/sites/observaport.org/files/RelatorioPrimavera2013.pdf), which is incredibly low compared to the demand that we are facing.

In a time that population is changing and the healthcare necessities are changing if it, shouldn’t we be changing gears and shifting to solutions that can actually increase the utility, meaning will being, of these people? If that was not enough, one of the reasons why people do not have access to palliative care is because most of them do not have access to private health insurance, benefiting only from the public insurance offered by SNS which does not offer this type of care, which ends up being even more surprising considering the fact that palliative care is not as expensive as people in general think, especially when compared with the recurring attempts for saving people that unfortunately cannot be saved, through chemotherapy and other procedures. The question remains: aren’t we underestimating the palliative care?

Tomás Loureiro

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Author: studentnovasbe

Master student in Nova Sbe

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