Diseases that kill often take their time, causing pain and suffering that may last for years.

Diseases that kill often take their time, causing pain and suffering that may last for years.

Hospitals are recognizing the need to provide "palliative" care to treat pain and other symptoms of diseases that can't be cured.

Palliative care already is an important part of hospice care for dying patients, but it also can be appropriate for people who need help to manage the symptoms of cancer, congestive heart failure and other diseases that eventually will be fatal.

Providence Medford Medical Center and Rogue Valley Medical Center are taking the first steps toward developing palliative care programs with grants from the Regence Foundation, the corporate foundation of the Regence Group. Regence is the largest health insurer in the Northwest, covering about 30,000 people in Jackson County through Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon.

The grants ($20,600 to Providence and $23,300 to RVMC) will be used to plan and organize palliative care programs in the hospitals. Both hospitals will send teams to planning workshops in Portland next week as one of the first steps in developing their programs. The Regence Foundation's decision to encourage palliative care is a recognition that the practice of medicine continues to evolve, said Mike Alexander, president of the foundation board of directors. He said the health care system needs to find the right balance between treating and alleviating illness, forging a path to the end of life that respects individual dignity while helping people make the best use of the limited time they have.

"We all understand the normal passage of life has a beginning and an end," he said. "Death is not a medical failing."

One of the most important aspects of palliative care is the recognition, by patients and caregivers, that recovery will not be a goal — "where we understand we're not going to change the course of the disease," said Brian Herwig, chief operating officer for Providence Medford.

Treating pain and suffering has become more important as technological advances help physicians extend the lives of patients, said Sue Kilbourne, clinical oncology manager at Rogue Valley Medical Center.

"We're prolonging people's lives," she said. "We're not curing them."

Kilbourne said palliative care will address "all the things that interfere with the quality of life" for people with chronic illness, such as fatigue, exhaustion and treatment-related nausea, as well as emotional and spiritual issues.

"They might spend a couple of years before they're in crisis," she said. "We'll be helping people live the rest of their life in the best way possible."

Kilbourne said hospitals in Portland, Salem and Eugene already have palliative care programs in place, and local hospitals will likely model their own programs after those.

"The northern part of the state is ahead of us," she said.

Palliative care will become increasingly important as the aging population expands, Kilbourne said.

"It's where the future of health care is going."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 541-776-4492, or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.