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What is Palliative Care?

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Updated January 26, 2011

What is Palliative Care?

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Question: What is Palliative Care?
Palliative care is a vague and often confusing term to describe a type of treatment model. Is it end-of-life care? Is it the same as hospice? What is palliative care?
Answer:

Palliative care is treatment aimed at relieving the symptoms associated with serious illnesses and improving a patient's quality of life. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT hospice care. Unlike hospice care, palliative care can begin at any time during a serious illness and ideally at the time of diagnosis.

Palliative Care for Cancer

Palliative care is most often utilized by cancer patients in the form of treatments such as palliative chemotherapy and palliative radiation. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments that are considered "palliative" are those that will not cure the cancer, but offer relief of symptoms. An example of this is a woman with a brain tumor causing severe headaches and blurred vision who undergoes radiation to shrink the tumor and relieve her symptoms.

Cancer patients who are undergoing curative cancer therapy are also prime candidates for palliative care. Aggressive palliative care can relieve distressing side effects from cancer treatment -- nausea and vomiting, fatigue, pain, and thrush are just a few of the symptoms palliative care can address.

Palliative Care Is Not Only For Cancer

Other serious illnesses can also benefit from palliative care. Heart failure patients can get relief from chest pain, fluid retention (edema), and shortness of breath. Liver failure patients can receive intensive treatments for abdominal pain and swelling, itching, and nausea. Patients with respiratory disease can manage shortness of breath and improve quality of life. Any serious illness that negatively impacts a patient's quality of life can benefit from palliative care.

And perhaps the biggest benefit of palliative care? Patients who receive palliative care live longer than patients who receive standard care. If patients can live a longer life with improved quality of life, why isn't palliative care more popular? It's partly due to the misconception that palliative care is the same as hospice care.

Palliative Care Does Not Equal Hospice Care

Hospice care is simply one form of palliative care that is appropriate for patients in the final stage of life -- those with a life expectancy of six months or less. Like palliative care, hospice care is designed to relieve symptoms and improve quality of life, but hospice is restricted to patients who are terminally ill.

Palliative care can be given regardless of life expectancy. Palliative care can begin as early in a patient's illness as is necessary to control symptoms and improve quality of life.

Palliative Care Goals

The goal of palliative care is simply to relieve suffering and improve quality of life. Further goals are then based on the patient's wishes in consultation with the palliative care team.

Read more about determining the goals of care.

Palliative care is more than just treating physical symptoms, however. Palliative care also addresses emotional suffering and spiritual care needs.

The Palliative Care Team

Palliative care is often carried out by a team of professionals who can address multiple concerns. The team may include:

The most important member of the palliative care team is YOU. Palliative care should be directed toward meeting your personal goals. It is your responsibility as a palliative care patient to make your goals and health care wishes known.

Learn more about finding palliative care.

Sources:

Jennifer S. Temel, M.D., et al. "Early Palliative Care for Patients with Metastatic Non–Small-Cell Lung Cancer" New England Journal of Medicine. N Engl J Med 2010; 363:733-742.

Phillip D. Good, John Cavenagh, Peter J. Ravenscroft. "Survival after enrollment in an Australian palliative care program". Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 2004;27:4 Pages 310-315.

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