Young docs fuel palliative medicine, reveal generational differences

One of the fastest-growing specialties, palliative care, is being led by physicians in their early- to mid-30s. About 12 percent of the physicians certified in hospice and palliative care in 2010 are now 36 or younger, according to the latest data available from the American Board of Medical Specialties. That figure has doubled in two years and is expected to grow dramatically, Mercury News reported.

The new--and first official--generation of palliative care doctors, as Mercury News noted, is discussing end-of-life decisions and the dying process with patients who are oftentimes their parents' age. The dynamic between dying patients and physicians who may be giving birth soon or newly engaged reveals not only different life stages but also generational differences. The age disconnect also draws concerns that senior patients may not be comfortable disclosing medical information to young physicians, as with sensitive conditions such as incontinence or depression.

"Young doctors are going to have to make a special effort to get this sort of information," Kavitha Ramchandran, 34, an attending physician in the Hospice and Palliative Medicine unit at Stanford Hospital, told the newspaper.

However, others see young physicians well suited to the blossoming specialty.

"This is a generation that grew up hearing about startups and innovation," said Stephanie Harman, 35, clinical instructor of general internal medicine and director of inpatient palliative care at Stanford. "The idea of the specialty of palliative care being a new field, with a lot of opportunity to innovate, and work in a team structure, that's something this generation is much more primed to do and excited about."

According to a recent National Journal poll, nearly all doctors think palliative care is essential. The majority (96 percent) of 500 board-certified physicians surveyed said quality of life for dying patients is important.

Hospitals across the country are opening hospice and palliative care departments. In fact, palliative care in hospitals has increased 138 percent in the past decade, according to a Center to Advance Palliative Care report released in July. Sixty-three percent of U.S. hospitals now have palliative teams.

For more information:
- read the Mercury News article
- here's the National Journal article
- see the National Journal poll