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Palliative Care

Reviewed on 12/4/2019

What Is Palliative Care?

The main goal of palliative care is to improve a patient's quality of life.
The main goal of palliative care is to improve a patient's quality of life.

Palliative care is specialized medical and nursing care for people living with chronic and serious, sometimes terminal illnesses. Palliative care is a holistic approach that involves providing relief from both physical and psychological symptoms, caring for emotional and social needs, and improving quality of life starting as soon as possible after diagnosis. Palliative care may also assist families and caregivers.

Palliative care may also be called supportive care, comfort care, and symptom management. It may occur in a patient’s home, in the hospital, in a long-term care facility, or at an outpatient clinic.

How Does Palliative Care Work?

Palliative care is provided by a team of medical professionals including doctors, nurses and other specialists with the goal of improving a patient’s quality of life. Palliative care can begin at diagnosis and may be given along with other treatments and cures.

A palliative care team works with patients and their families to:

  • Help them understand their diagnosis and disease
  • Identify treatment options and goals
  • Coordinate with doctors
  • Relieve a patient’s symptoms
  • Alleviate stress
  • Assist with medical decision-making

What Are the Goals of Palliative Care?

The main goal of palliative care is to improve a patient’s quality of life by relieving suffering. The palliative care team provides support to patients and caregivers. A palliative care team will help patients cope with physical symptoms of serious illnesses such as:

What Is the Difference Between Hospice and Palliative Care?

There are some similarities and differences between hospice care and palliative care. The main way the types of care are the same is that they both help patients deal with serious illness.

However, hospice care is reserved for terminally ill patients with a limited life expectancy and only begins once a patient’s condition is unable to be cured or managed. The only goal of hospice care is comfort and quality of life. In hospice, there are no attempts to cure an illness.

Palliative care can be administered any time from diagnosis to cure, and a person does not necessarily need to have a life-threatening condition. Some people with chronic illnesses will receive palliative care for many years, and others will only receive palliative care once they enter hospice in their final days or weeks of life.

What Is the Role of a Palliative Care Team?

Palliative care is administered by a team of health care professionals including doctors, nurses, other health professionals, chaplains, volunteers, and caregivers. All these people work together to provide care that improves a patient’s quality of life.

Types of doctors in a palliative care team can include general practitioners, as well as specialists such as surgeons and psychiatrists, along with specialized palliative care consultants.

Depending on a patient’s illness, different medical specialists may be part of the team, such as:

  • Oncologists (cancer specialists)
  • Neurologists (nerve disease specialists)
  • Pulmonologists (lung disease specialists)
  • Cardiologists (heart disease specialists)

Other health professionals who may be part of the palliative care team include:

  • Dietitians
  • Counselors
  • Psychologists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Social workers
  • Physiotherapists
  • Orthotists
  • Prosthetists
  • Pharmacists

Complementary and alternative therapies may also be a part of palliative care such as:

What Types of Palliative Care Are Available?

Palliative care is available for many different serious and chronic illnesses, such as:

The type of care provided will depend on the patient’s symptoms and needs.

Palliative care may include helping with medications, diet and nutrition, emotional or spiritual support, relaxation techniques, and support for caregivers and family members.

Palliative care for physical effects of illnesses may include:

Social and emotional support that might be arranged by palliative care specialists may include:

  • Finding support groups
  • Arranging transportation to treatments

Palliative care may also involve assistance with managing finances, such as:

  • Helping patients and families deal with billing and insurance
  • Assisting with applications for disability payments or medical leave
  • Finding programs that offer low-cost or free medications

Palliative care can also include support for caregivers and family members of people with serious illness.

What Are the Stages of Palliative Care?

Palliative care may start once a patient is diagnosed and it may last for years, whereas hospice care only begins at the end of the life of a terminally ill patient.

Once a patient is diagnosed with a serious illness, an assessment of symptoms is usually the first step. Patients with serious or life-threatening illnesses commonly experience symptoms such as:

Symptom severity and frequency may determine treatments that will help improve quality of life for the patient.

For some patients, a time may come when it is no longer possible to treat or cure a serious illness, or a patient may choose to stop treatment. In those situations, hospice care may be initiated. In hospice, any attempts to cure an illness will be stopped, but treatment to alleviate symptoms and keep a patient comfortable will continue.

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Reviewed on 12/4/2019
References
Center for Hospice Care Southeast Connecticut. "Hospice vs. Palliative Care." 2018. 25 November 2019.
<https://www.hospicesect.org/hospice-and-palliative-care>.

Center to Advance Palliative Care. "Get Palliative Care." 2019. 25 November 2019.
<https://getpalliativecare.org/>.

National Cancer Institute. "Palliative Care in Cancer." 20 October 2017. 25 November 2019.
<https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/care-choices/palliative-care-fact-sheet>.

The State of Victoria and the Department of Health & Human Services. "Who's Who in a Palliative Care Team." February 2017. 25 November 2019.
<https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/servicesandsupport/whos-who-in-a-palliative-care-team>.

Victor T Chang, MD. "Approach to Symptom Assessment in Palliative Care." 10 October 2019. 25 November 2019.
<https://www.uptodate.com/contents/approach-to-symptom-assessment-in-palliative-care#!>.

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