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Understanding Palliative Care

A comprehensive approach to improving quality of life

Doctor on a home visit discussing health of a man with him and his wife

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En español | Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing people with relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the person and the family.

Palliative care is provided by a specially-trained team of doctors, nurses, social workers, and other specialists who work together with the individual’s other doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided along with curative treatment.

How Does Palliative Care Work?

Palliative care focuses on the whole person during the course of the illness. To do this, it brings together a diverse team of professionals, including:

  • Physicians.
  • Nurses.
  • Pharmacists.
  • Social workers.
  • Pastoral counselors.
  • Physical therapists.
  • Occupational therapists.
  • Music therapists.
  • Art therapists.
  • Specially trained volunteers.

This team works with the patient and family members to provide a continuum of care that can begin with the onset of an illness or whenever comfort, support and quality of life issues become significant concerns.

Palliative Care Facts

  • Some patients receive palliative care and continue to pursue other life-prolonging programs, including chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
  • General physicians are typically key members of the palliative care team and can coordinate services and participate in care.
  • Palliative care is offered in a wide range of locations, including doctors’ offices, clinics, long-term care settings and at home. Many medical institutions have begun to develop palliative care programs on site to augment their existing services.
  • Medical organizations and professionals recognize palliative care as not only one of the newest disciplines in the health care field, but as a medical specialty. Professionals who specialize in palliative medicine receive special training and certification.
  • Several organizations, such as the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, provide referrals to physicians who specialize in palliative care.
  • Find providers in your state by visiting the Palliative Care Provider Directory of Hospitals.

Palliative Care vs. Hospice Care

Hospice care and palliative care are related, but different. Palliative care is the attention to and treatment of symptoms, regardless of the cause. Its a focus of health care that can, and should, be a part of all health care at all times. Hospice care is for people at the end of their lives, who will not recover from their illness. Hospice care is palliative care for the last six months of life. People in hospice care are no longer seeking a cure, or curative treatment. People at the end of life have a choice: to keep trying treatments hoping for an extension of life or a cure, or to focus on quality of life, and let nature take its course.

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