A pioneer in palliative care: Cancer pain researcher works to bring palliative care to forefront
Diana Wilkie firmly believes that palliative care isn’t only for people with life-threatening illnesses. While some associate palliative care primarily with end-of-life care, she says it should be available to anyone suffering from pain.
“Symptom or pain management is something that everyone needs if they’re having any health concerns. I’ve believed that for my entire career,” said Wilkie, Ph.D., R.N., F.A.A.N., an internationally known pain expert who specializes in palliative and end-of-life care.
Her interest in these areas was sparked by a patient with pancreatic cancer who made the decision to enter hospice care, only to find out there wasn’t a nurse available at that center who was able take care of him.
At the time, hospice care was run on a volunteer basis. Wilkie came onboard to take care of the man, and quickly realized that improving pain management, particularly for people with cancer, was where she wanted to focus her career.
Wilkie, who joined UF Health earlier this year, is currently leading efforts to establish the Center of Excellence in Palliative Care Research housed within the College of Nursing. As center director, her research involves working with other health colleges at UF to better manage pain in patients — even animal patients via the College of Veterinary Medicine. It’s exciting to work at UF Health because there’s support for the idea that palliative care is a multifaceted area of care, Wilkie said.
“UF Health provides us with the opportunity to have a very broad foundation for our palliative care center, which will really set us apart from other palliative care centers,” she said.
While Wilkie has always believed palliative care should be given to anyone battling serious illness — not just terminally ill patients — she said the larger health care community has more recently adopted that way of thinking.
Research shows that palliative care such as pain reduction or treatment of side effects can result in improved longevity and more tolerable treatments for patients with potentially life-threatening illnesses like cancer, Wilkie said.
“It’s really important to recognize that palliative care provided during the time when someone is receiving treatment can result in better cancer care outcomes,” she said.
Wilkie also believes better pain management through palliative care will also result in people being less afraid to go to the doctor.
“If we are able to promise people comfort, I think it will really change society’s perception of health care,” she said.
For the last 15 years, Wilkie’s research has focused on people with serious chronic illnesses like cancer and sickle cell disease. Currently, she’s looking at the mechanisms of sickle-cell pain to better treat the disease and improve the lives of sufferers.
Additionally, Wilkie is awaiting the results of a study of an app in Chicago that enables patients with cancer to use tablets to monitor their symptoms and pain in real time from the comfort of their homes. The app sends this information to their clinicians with recommendations for appropriate interventions, which increases patient-provider interaction and improves care. She hopes to bring this app to Florida once the study has been completed.
Another study that Wilkie’s excited to have underway involves working with nurses and chaplains to implement “dignity therapy” in clinical practice for patients receiving palliative care at UF Health. The aim of this therapy is to help patients set personal goals for their care and to take control of their lives while undergoing treatment.