Palliative care is an important type of health care that is not focused on curing any illness or disease. Instead, it focuses on relieving symptoms and helping patients feel better and more comfortable. Patients who receive this type of care are those living with serious illnesses that are chronic or terminal. Palliative care may be administered alongside curative care, but it is not the same thing.
In recent years palliative care has become more important in medicine. Instead of focusing the goals of medicine solely on curing a disease, the shift to palliative care is a shift to more patient-centered care. It is a compassionate type of care that takes patients’ goals, needs, and wishes and devises treatments that will give them a better quality of life for as long as possible.
What is Palliative Care?
Palliative care is a medical specialty with the goal of providing patients with relief from symptoms, not of providing a cure for an illness or disease. This care may focus on any of the symptoms caused by an illness, or the side effects of curative treatment like nausea caused by chemotherapy treatment for cancer.
The main goal is to improve the quality of life for the patient and for those who love and care for them. Palliative care is also a medical support team, a team of doctors and other health professionals, who support the patient and the family and complements more traditional care. Some of the more specific goals and purposes of palliative care are:
- To provide pain relief and relief from other symptoms causing pain, discomfort, or distress.
- To integrate mental health care, spiritual care, and overall wellness with traditional medical care.
- To provide a support system for patients and for families, including providing support for family after the patient has passed away.
- To provide care while neither slowing nor hastening death, and with a philosophy of death as a natural part of life.
Where Palliative Care is Provided
Where this kind of care is given depends on the patient and the individual situation. It may be provided in the home or in a treatment facility on an outpatient basis for those patients who are still able to live at home most of the time. Palliative care can also be provided in residential settings, in hospitals, in nursing homes, in assisted living facilities, in cancer care centers, and in hospice care centers.
Who Provides Palliative Care?
Palliative care is generally provided by a team of diverse health care professionals. The team members may be selected depending on the patient’s needs. Caregivers typically include doctors, often those with a specialty in palliative care, nurses, nursing assistants, therapists and psychiatrists, nutritionists, pain specialists, home health care workers, social workers, chaplains, and other spiritual care providers.
Who Needs Palliative Care?
Palliative care is appropriate for anyone who can benefit from it. Anyone who lives with a serious, chronic, and potentially terminal condition can benefit from this care. If life expectancy is not very long, the patient may be given both palliative and hospice care. There are no life expectancy limitations on palliative care. Some examples of conditions that may require palliative care include:
- Multiple sclerosis.
- Chronic lung diseases.
- Heart disease.
- Alzheimer’s disease.
- Parkinson’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
- Kidney failure.
Symptoms Palliative Care Addresses
The goal of palliative care is to make patients more comfortable and that generally means relieving side effects and symptoms of disease and curative treatments. The care team consults with the patient to determine what type of relief is most important, but there are some common symptoms that palliative teams often address:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Weight loss, loss of appetite, and wasting
- Breathing difficulties
- Weakness and fatigue
- Mental health symptoms, including depression and anxiety
How Palliative Care is Given
A patient receiving palliative care can expect it to begin with a consultation. This is a meeting between the patient, the patient’s family and caregivers, and the palliative care team. The consultation is a chance for the team to get to know the patient, current treatments, symptoms, and the patient’s concerns and goals for care.
Symptom management is a big part of palliative care and may be provided using medications, medical treatments, physical therapy, alternative therapies, and other strategies, depending on what works. The care team also provides support in the form of helping patients and their families make informed decisions about treatment. Mental health and spiritual members of the team help patients through counseling sessions and just by listening. The palliative care team may also provide patients with resources and connections or referrals that help them get alternative care, financial assistance, and other types of support.
Palliative Care is a Growing Trend
Medical care has not always been focused on making patients feel better. It has historically been more focused on curing the condition, regardless of how uncomfortable or in paint the patient is. In recent years, palliative care has grown as medical philosophies shift to include more patient-focused care. Since 2000, for example, the percentage of hospitals in the U.S. that offer palliative care has grown from just over 20 percent to nearly 80 percent.
Palliative care is also no longer limited to hospitals or hospice facilities. Another trend is that this type of care is expanding out to communities and being offered in the home, in care clinics, in residential treatment centers, and in other settings. The philosophy of medicine is changing and more professionals now believe that everyone living with a serious illness should have access to good palliative care.
Palliative care is important. Research has shown that this type of care has a number of benefits that go beyond the relief of physical symptoms. It improves overall quality of life, increases satisfaction with medical care in general, and eases emotional distress, like anxiety, fear and depression. Good palliative care should be provided for any serious illness, but patients should also feel empowered to ask for this care and expect to get the best care that meets their needs and goals.