What Is Palliative Care?

Palliative care is a discipline of skilled medical care designed to relieve suffering and improve the quality of life for patients and families living with serious, advanced, or life-defining illnesses.  It can be available to patients of any age with serious illnesses of all types, at any stage of illness, providing care in all locations.  It is typically supported by insurance plans.  We believe that despite having a serious – possibly terminal – diagnosis, there is the potential of experiencing meaningful quality of life.  Though maintaining an understanding of the reality of a serious illness, the focus is on clarifying a patient’s values, wishes, hopes, and dreams, and creating the optimal care environment that allows them to move beyond potential pain and suffering and realize opportunities for joy in life.  It’s about living, not dying.

How is Palliative Care Different from Hospice?

Hospice care is team-based service designed to help those with a limited life expectancy. An interdisciplinary team including a nurse, social worker, chaplain, physician, and volunteers. In most circumstances, hospice is provided to patients with less than six months to live, and who are willing to forego further curative treatment.

Hospice care includes skilled palliative services, but palliative care does not require participation in hospice, and doesn’t have the restrictions of a limited prognosis. It’s quite common for patients with a palliative plan of care to continue to receive curative or disease modifying treatments. Palliative care provides for optimal treatment of symptoms related to underlying disease or treatment; it also provides the opportunity to discuss plans of care, and assure that a patient’s treatment plan is consistent with their wishes and goals.

What Should You Expect?

There are many illnesses that can accurately be predicted to place a potential burden of suffering onto a patient: cancer, progressive neurologic diseases (ALS, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease), congestive heart failure, chronic lung disease, kidney failure, liver disease, just to name a few. Ideally, palliative resources should begin at the time of diagnosis of a life-defining illness.

We are moving into an era in health care in which palliative care is becoming recognized and accepted as a normal part of a treatment course for advanced and serious disease. Most hospitals offer inpatient palliative services, and many communities now have community-based programs: home visit palliative programs, palliative care in nursing homes, and palliative clinics, both free standing and those imbedded in cancer centers.
Anyone experiencing challenges with a serious, chronic, or advanced disease should ask their doctor about palliative services. When curative therapies are no longer effective or desired, and life expectancy is realistically measured in months, that’s the time to request hospice services.

John Mulder, MD

Medical Director, Trillium Institute
Chief Consultant for Hospice and Palliative Care, Holland Home
Medical Director of Palliative Care, Metro Health

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