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Discharge to Subacute Rehabilitation Facilities Does Not Benefit Patients Hospitalized With Progressive Gastrointestinal Cancer

Open ArchivePublished:April 21, 2017DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2017.03.006
      To the Editor:
      Subacute rehabilitation (SAR), which is generally provided in skilled nursing facilities, involves less rigorous rehabilitation than inpatient (“acute”) programs,
      • Keith R.A.
      • Wilson D.B.
      • Gutierrez P.
      Acute and subacute rehabilitation for stroke: a comparison.
      and does not routinely incorporate specialized pain management or palliative care. If a patient's prognosis is poor, especially if there are significant symptoms such as debilitating pain or exhaustion that make participation in physical therapy difficult, a hospice program may be more clinically appropriate. Nonetheless, hospitalized patients and/or their families may sometimes decline a recommendation for a hospice discharge plan for a multitude of reasons, including a hope for further productive anticancer treatment.
      Much complexity lies in the fact that oncology patients are often not fully aware of the intent of their treatment and their overall prognosis.
      • Epstein A.S.
      • Prigerson H.G.
      • O’Reilly E.M.
      • Maciejewski P.K.
      Discussions of life expectancy and changes in illness understanding in patients with advanced cancer.
      • Weeks J.C.
      • Catalano P.J.
      • Cronin A.
      • et al.
      Patients' expectations about effects of chemotherapy for advanced cancer.
      Reasons for this may include varying degrees of failure on the part of clinicians to accurately explain treatment intent and prognosis.
      • Mack J.W.
      • Smith T.J.
      Reasons why physicians do not have discussions about poor prognosis, why it matters, and what can be improved.
      In one survey, 39% of rehabilitation physicians, compared with 61% of oncologists, believed that patients with advanced cancer actively participating in rehabilitation services genuinely understood their overall prognosis.
      • Spill G.R.
      • Hlubocky F.J.
      • Daugherty C.K.
      Oncologists' and physiatrists' attitudes regarding rehabilitation for patients with advanced cancer.
      Although it is possible that patients with advanced cancer may benefit from SAR, it is also possible that either no desired benefit is conferred, or that actual harm or detriment is incurred.
      We performed a retrospective review of a consecutive series of patients with advanced metastatic gastrointestinal (GI) cancer who were discharged from our inpatient service to an SAR and analyzed their median survival and whether these patients subsequently received systemic chemotherapy after hospital discharge.

      Methods

      An institutional electronic database was queried to identify patients of the GI Medical Oncology Service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) who were admitted between September 1, 2008 and December 31, 2014, and were discharged to SAR.
      Excluded were patients with: non-metastatic cancer (21 patients), low-grade neuroendocrine tumors (five patients), those receiving or awaiting first-line chemotherapy (32 patients), or those lost to follow-up (five patients). Also excluded were patients with a history of fully resected metastatic cancer in the past but off treatment for several years and under observation (three patients), as well as patients admitted because of a reversible toxicity of an otherwise effective chemotherapy that was planned to be resumed after recovery (five patients). Reversible treatment-related toxicities included diarrhea (two patients), nausea/vomiting (one patient), abscess (one patient), and myelitis (one patient).
      Primary outcomes included the median overall survival from the time of hospital discharge and the percentage of patients who received further chemotherapy after hospital discharge. Secondary outcomes included the percentages of patients who died at SAR, those who died within three months and six months of hospital discharge, as well as the percentages of patients who were transitioned to hospice within three months of hospital discharge, who were re-admitted within one month of hospital discharge, and who followed up with their oncologists for an outpatient appointment after hospital discharge.
      Two authors (A. V. D. and L. E. C.) performed independent in-depth chart reviews of the electronic medical records of all included patients. All study authors reviewed the final data set. Descriptive statistics were generated for all included patients. The institutional review board of MSK approved this study.

      Results

      Patient Characteristics

      Twenty-two patients met eligibility criteria. These patients had progressive metastatic GI malignancies despite receiving at least two lines of chemotherapy (18 patients) or being ineligible for chemotherapy because of performance status (four patients). Twelve patients (55%) were female. The median age was 74 years (range 45–90 years). Malignancies included pancreatic adenocarcinoma (seven patients), esophageal adenocarcinoma (four patients), colorectal adenocarcinoma (six patients), gastric adenocarcinoma (two patients), cholangiocarcinoma (two patients), and cancer of unknown primary (one patient). The most common metastatic sites included liver, lungs, peritoneum, lymph nodes, and malignant pleural effusions. The most common admitting diagnoses included failure to thrive, sepsis, acute kidney injury, and deep venous thrombosis. A Do-Not-Resuscitate order was present in 10 patients (45%). Table 1 summarizes these patients' characteristics.
      Table 1Patient Characteristics
      Patient NumberGenderAge, yrsCancer TypeNumber of Lines of Prior Cancer TherapiesMetastatic Sites at Time of AdmissionPrimary Admitting DiagnosisCode Status
      1Female77Gallbladder adenocarcinoma2Liver, lungs, peritoneum, lymph nodesFailure to thriveFULL
      2Female79Pancreatic adenocarcinoma2LiverRight arm cellulitisDNR
      3Male62Esophageal adenocarcinoma4Lymph nodesAcute kidney injuryDNR
      4Female59Rectal adenocarcinoma3Liver, lung, adrenal glandPeri-rectal abscessFULL
      5Male45Esophageal adenocarcinoma2BrainLung abscessFULL
      6Male68Pancreatic adenocarcinoma2Liver, peritoneumFailure to thriveDNR
      7Male56Esophageal adenocarcinoma2Pleural effusionFailure to thriveDNR
      8Female65Pancreatic adenocarcinoma3Liver, lymph nodesBiliary obstructionFULL
      9Female74Colon adenocarcinoma2Liver, lymph nodesSpinal compression and pubic ramus fracturesFULL
      10Male67Rectal adenocarcinoma2Peritoneum, pleural effusion, perineal massesUrinary tract infectionFULL
      11Female83Pancreatic adenocarcinoma4Liver, lungs, lymph nodesDeep venous thrombosisFULL
      12Female90Gastric adenocarcinoma3Lymph nodes, liver, lung, peritoneumRefractory malignant ascitesDNR
      13Male77Esophageal adenocarcinoma3Lung, pleural effusionElectrolyte derangements and cardiac arrhythmiaDNR
      14Female71Pancreatic adenocarcinomaNone (ineligible because of performance status)LiverDeep venous thrombosisDNR
      15Female51Gastric adenocarcinomaNone (ineligible because of performance status)Bone, lung, lymph nodesEndocarditisFULL
      16Female73Cancer of unknown enteric primaryNone (ineligible because of performance status)Left uterine wall, rectumFailure to thrive and urinary tract infectionFULL
      17Male84Cholangiocarcinoma2LiverChronic subdural hematomaFULL
      18Male78Colon adenocarcinoma4LiverInfectious colitis and pneumoniaFULL
      19Male76Pancreatic adenocarcinoma2Liver, spineSpinal cord compressionFULL
      20Female59Colon adenocarcinoma2Ovaries, lungs, liver, peritoneum, spleen, adrenal glandSmall bowel obstruction and urinary tract infectionDNR
      21Female81Colon adenocarcinoma5Lungs, lymph nodes, liverPneumonia, urinary tract infection and acute kidney injuryDNR
      22Male78Pancreatic adenocarcinomaNone (ineligible because of performance status)LiverEndocarditisDNR
      DNR = Do-Not-Resuscitate.

      Patient Outcomes

      The median overall survival from the time of hospital discharge was 24 days (range 6–156 days). Seven patients (32%) died at the SAR to which they were discharged. Neither overall survival nor death at SAR varied across cancer types or hospital admission diagnoses. Only three patients (14%) lived beyond three months and none were alive at six months after discharge. Nine patients (41%) were transitioned to hospice within three months of discharge. Eight patients (36%) were readmitted within one month of discharge. Two patients (9%) followed up with their oncologists for outpatient appointments after discharge. None of the patients received further chemotherapy after discharge.

      Comment

      Our data show that in patients with metastatic GI cancer who had been extensively treated with chemotherapy, or who were ineligible for chemotherapy based on their performance status, and whose admitting diagnosis did not represent a reversible chemotherapy-related complication, discharges to SAR were associated with short survival and no further chemotherapy receipt. Given that SAR facilities are not typically staffed with palliative care and pain control expertise, these necessary services likely were not available to patients in our study when needed. As such, there may have been a detriment incurred by an SAR discharge that a hospice discharge may have avoided.
      This study is the only one, to our knowledge, that specifically addresses the clinical question of what happens to inpatients with progressive and/or debilitating cancers after discharge to SAR. These data, therefore, can help establish goals of care in advanced GI cancer patients and help further guide discussions regarding appropriate discharge planning for this patient population. Although our sample size of 22 may seem small, the clinical setting is one where not uncommonly, a hope is voiced by oncologists, nurses, patients, and/or families, that “if you/I could only just get stronger with rehabilitation, then you/I could get more chemotherapy.” Although a hope for more cancer treatment in the face of a life-threatening illness is certainly understandable, our data indicate that SAR does not achieve this goal of further chemotherapy in such progressive GI malignancies.
      Limited data from elsewhere agree with ours; in one study of a tertiary cancer center's quality improvement program aimed to improve the appropriateness of which inpatients are transferred to SAR, only one of 25 patients (4%) returned for further cancer-directed therapy.
      • Dy S.M.
      • List D.J.
      • Barbe C.
      • Knight L.
      A quality improvement initiative for improving appropriateness of referrals from a cancer center to subacute rehabilitation.
      The authors concluded that earlier and more in-depth discussions of care goals and hospice were warranted for such a sick and vulnerable patient population.
      • Dy S.M.
      • List D.J.
      • Barbe C.
      • Knight L.
      A quality improvement initiative for improving appropriateness of referrals from a cancer center to subacute rehabilitation.
      Our study was limited in that it was retrospective and included a single service at a tertiary care center, potentially limiting the generalizability of the findings. Nonetheless, our patient sample did encompass a wide range of GI malignancies, which are a common and heterogeneous group of cancers. Future studies might investigate whether these conclusions hold true for other malignancies. It is also possible that SAR may have benefited some patients (e.g., by providing services that hospice could not, or maintaining hope in a way hospice seemed to not be able to) in ways we were unable to measure.
      In conclusion, in GI cancer inpatients, a discharge to SAR could be more harmful than beneficial for patients and families with advancing or debilitating disease, and our study offers data to suggest that this question is worthy of further study. Advances in research, education, and health care policy (including advances in palliative care delivery) are needed
      • Dharmarajan K.V.
      • Wei R.
      • Vapiwala N.
      Primary palliative care education in specialty oncology training: more work is needed.
      • Quill T.E.
      • Abernethy A.P.
      Generalist plus specialist palliative care — creating a more sustainable model.
      to improve the quality of the ways in which clinicians, particularly primary oncology teams, dually inform and empathize with
      • van Vliet L.M.
      • Epstein A.S.
      Current State of the art and science of patient-clinician communication in progressive disease: patients' need to know and need to feel known.
      these patients with serious illness who are often struggling at the end of life. Communicating how SAR might not help these particular patients and how it might potentially do harm, and instead, indicating how other avenues for end-of-life care could be pursued, represents one important strategy for facilitating more informed goals of care discussions.

      Disclosures and Acknowledgments

      This research was funded in part through the NIH/NCI Cancer Center Support Grant P30 CA008748. The authors declare no conflicts of interest.
      This work was presented in abstract form at the annual Palliative Care in Oncology Symposium of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), September 10, 2016.

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      Linked Article

      • Subacute Rehabilitation Does Have Benefits for Patients With Advanced Cancer
        Journal of Pain and Symptom ManagementVol. 55Issue 1
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          It is with concern that we read a recent Letter to the Editor by Desai et al.,1 that stated “people with gastrointestinal cancer did not benefit from the admission to subacute rehabilitation,” concluding that inpatient rehabilitation could do more harm than good. People with advanced cancer may not always achieve physical gains after rehabilitation but to state there is no benefit is an oversimplification. This was a very small sample size (n = 22), one-third of whom had metastatic pancreas cancer where rapid functional decline is seen in the last weeks of life.
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