What is Supportive Medicine?

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Dr. Sandra Gomez and supportive medicine patient Sanford Hughes

What is “supportive medicine?” It’s a term often misunderstood by both healthcare practitioners and patients. Also known as “palliative care,” this medical discipline is revolutionizing the healthcare industry’s approach to the delivery of care to patients with chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

Supportive care is focused on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress associated with their illness, whatever the diagnosis and prognosis. Moreover, it is appropriate for patients at any age and at any stage of their disease process.  The goal of Supportive Medicine is to improve quality of life for both patients and their families.

Take the case of patient Sanford Hughes.

Before Hughes became part of the Memorial Hermann Supportive Medicine program, he logged three hospital stays ranging from a week to a month over a three-year period. Born with severe scoliosis that continues to worsen, the 56-year-old resident of The Woodlands has suffered a multitude of disorders as a result of his condition.

Several years ago, a urinary tract infection led to pneumonia and sepsis that left him near death in the ICU at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Hospital. Today, he’s under the care of internist Julio Rivera, M.D., and has had no hospital admissions for more than a year.

“Dr. Rivera was on duty when I was in the ICU,” says Hughes, whose scoliosis is so severe that MRI images can no longer visualize his entire spine. “He was so caring and concerned about my well-being that I wanted him as my doctor when I left the hospital.”

The curvature of Hughes’ spine has compressed his lungs and moved his left hip partially out of the socket. “It was becoming increasingly hard to walk,” he says. “My left foot was at an angle that forced me to walk on the ball of my foot.”

In 2000, he broke his right femur. Physical therapy helped him return to function but in 2004, he broke his left leg, which caused him to rely on a scooter to move around his home.”

Hughes lives with his parents, who provide help when needed, while his brother Alex drives him for regular checkups.

Dr. Rivera sees Sanford at his office, where he collaborates with palliative medicine specialist Sandra Gomez, System Director of Supportive Medicine. Between regularly scheduled visits, members of a Supportive Medicine team see him at home.

“Our overall aim is to improve quality of life for our patients and keep them out of the hospital through active surveillance and symptom management,” Dr. Rivera says. “Ultimately, continued active care is better for the patient and it also reduces hospital utilization and overall healthcare costs. Programs like this help patients avoid the revolving door of the emergency room and hospital. Through regular home visits, the team identifies problems and resolves them before they become major issues that require a hospital stay. We refer back and forth to each other seamlessly to provide a strong continuum of care.”

Supportive Medicine, led by MHMD, which is the Memorial Hermann Physician Network, is an integral part of the Memorial Hermann care delivery system with programs offered at hospitals throughout the Memorial Hermann system. The Supportive Medicine team at each hospital is comprised of multi-disciplinary members including a palliative trained physician, nurse, social worker and chaplain.

The teams are specifically trained to address the unique needs of patients with serious illness in order to optimize the delivery of care to improve the management of their symptoms, pain and stress associated with their illness.

“I’m in awe of the program,” said Hughes. “It’s why I’m here. It gives me reason to believe in a system that really takes care of people. I’m not just a number. They’re kind, dedicated and supportive. Whatever I need, they tell me it will be easily done.”

Learn more about supportive medicine.

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Tashika Varma