Gerontology department takes lead on hospice research

YSU graduate Krystal Culler and gerontology faculty member Daniel Van Dussen conducted research that has caught the attention of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

A recent study by YSU graduate Krystal Culler and gerontology faculty member Daniel Van Dussen has caught the attention of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.

What started as a local pilot study on hospice care by associate professor Daniel Van Dussen of YSU’s Gerontology Department, may soon lead the way for the university to spearhead a larger national study.

Van Dussen is the principal author of a 2011 research study published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine titled, “Perceptions About Hospice From a Community-Based Pilot Study: Lessons and Findings.”

For the study, Van Dussen surveyed 168 participants in the Mahoning Valley to find their attitudes and perceptions of hospice care. The study showed that just 40 percent of individuals eligible for hospice care in the Valley received it. Patients are considered eligible for hospice services when they are deemed to have six months or less to live.

“There is an awful lot of unmet need – an awful lot of pain people go through unnecessarily,” said Van Dussen, who joined the YSU faculty six years ago to help coordinate and build the university’s gerontology program.

“The study shows that most people don’t realize the funding sources available for hospice care,” he added. “Many non-profit hospices treat patients even if they can’t afford to pay – it’s part of their mission; they want no one who can benefit from this care to go without.

The study, co-authored by 2009 YSU master’s graduate and current University of Akron doctoral student, Krystal Culler, and John Cagle from the University of North Carolina’s Institute on Aging, also found that older and African American respondents were more likely to view hospice care as “giving up.”

“Some of today’s diseases cannot be cured, or by the time the illness is discovered it is too late for curative care,” said Van Dussen. “Hospice is more to treat pain and keep patients comfortable.”

Van Dussen’s research has gained the notice of the Hospice Foundation of America, which has pledged $100,000 toward a nationwide survey. Van Dussen hopes to find grant money to fund the additional $300,000 needed to complete the national study, which would poll some 2,500 to 3,000 people.

“The Gerontology Department is fully behind this and since this is a pretty big research project the university will benefit from it,” said Van Dussen, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Mount Union College, a master’s from the University of Akron and a Ph.D. from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

“People will start seeing Youngstown State as an important research university.”

Dozens of gerontology professionals and students from across Ohio will get a chance to hear more about YSU’s program when the Ohio Association of Gerontology and Education holds its 36th annual Ohio Professional and Student Conference on Aging at YSU. The conference will be April 20 in Williamson Hall.

According to 2010 Census data, more than 39 million Americans aged 65 or older make up 13 percent of the U.S. population. Aging “baby boomers” are expected to further swell these ranks over the next four decades, making end-of-life care even more important.

A 2010 study by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization found American hospices provided service to 1.5 million people in 2008, but many who qualify do not receive those services. The same study also found that 35 percent of patients entering hospice die within seven days, while at least 30 days are needed to provide maximum benefit.

“Ultimately, we can reduce the amount of unmet need and reduce unnecessary suffering at the end of life, which is why I got into this in the first place,” Van Dussen added.

Story by Robert Merz