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Palliative Care

A Misunderstood But Vital Service


Updated December 02, 2013

Palliative Care
Bambu Productions

Palliative Care is a misunderstood service most often associated with death and dying. In reality, palliative can give people a longer quality of life during any stage of life. There is a nuance there that most people do not appreciate.

Palliative care is specialized medical care for those with serious illnesses. It is focused on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

Palliative care is provided by a team. This includes doctors, nurses, and other specialists. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness.

Patients Who May Benefit

Those with serious and chronic illnesses can benefit from palliative care. These include those suffering from:


  • cancer
  • cardiac disease
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • kidney failure
  • Alzheimer's
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)

Palliative care relieves the symptoms of these diseases. These symptoms include pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, constipation, nausea, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping.

Palliative Partnership

A team of experts, including palliative care doctors, nurses and social workers, provides this care. Chaplains, massage therapists, pharmacists, nutritionists and others may also support the care team. This team provides:


  • Expert management of pain and other symptoms
  • Help navigating the healthcare system
  • Guidance with difficult and complex treatment choices
  • Emotional and spiritual support
  • Educating family members about the patient's illness, treatment, and medications
  • Providing respite care for caregivers
  • Providing home help with transportation, meals, and shopping

It is a service not just for the dying and that is a key takeaway.

Though a relatively new field, medical schools have palliative care programs and are teaching medical students and residents about palliative care. Little education occurred about palliative care as recently as a decade ago.

The Patient is the Center of Care

Patients begin care as soon as they're diagnosed with a serious illness even as they continue to pursue a cure. Some patients recover and move out of palliative care. Others move in and out of palliative care as the need arises.

A care plan and a strategy that meets the patient's goals and values is carefully designed and that means the patient is a vital part of the care team. For some the goal might be to live as long as possible. For others, the quality of each day is important.

Equally important is the emotional support that this care provides for patients and family members. In August 2010, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study where researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that advanced lung cancer patients who received early palliative care actually had lower rates of depression and better quality of life than patients who received standard treatment only.

Palliative care is holistic. This means attending to the challenges that illness poses in every aspect of life. That means family members and caregivers are involved.

As more people want to not only age in place but live to the end of their lives in their homes, palliative care is not just about care in hospitals or long-term care facilities. It is a vital component of a home health program.

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