We usually think about medical care as help from doctors to stay healthy or to get healthy if we’re not. But sometimes people have symptoms or problems that don’t go away, and they need to find ways to manage them and make life better.
There’s a whole branch of medicine, palliative care, for helping patients and families improve the quality of life while they’re living with a serious illness or lingering medical problems. Not only does palliative care help relieve suffering, but it helps people gain more control over their lives. Care professionals estimate 6 million Americans need palliative care today.
It’s important to know about palliative care. Because even though we don’t like to think about it, at some point you or a person you love could benefit from palliative care. A lot of people don’t get the support they need from a palliative care team because they don’t know about it—or they don’t get it soon enough.
Palliative care is for people who are getting life-altering treatment, develop a terminal illness, or who must live with serious medical problems or chronic conditions that cause pain, discomfort and stress.
They might have difficulties such as:
A few examples
People get palliative care when they are:
Here’s a quick quiz from Get Palliative Care to help figure out if someone you know might benefit from palliative care. http://getpalliativecare.org/rightforyou/
The word “palliate” means to make something less severe or unpleasant, or to relieve. A palliative care doctor and team step in to fill gaps in providing symptom relief and practical support for the whole person, not just the parts that aren’t working.
The doctor meets with the patient and often their family to evaluate options, help them understand choices and set goals for care. A big part of this conversation is to really understand what people value in life and give to them more control over their care. Health of mind, body and spirit all come into play.
It’s always a team effort. Different people join the collaboration, depending on what’s needed to manage physical and emotional symptoms in the best way. Nurses, social workers, nutritionists, chaplains, psychologists, massage therapists and others might be involved.
The palliative specialist works with the patient’s other doctors to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Medical treatments to cure or improve are part of palliative care, as they are for any part of medicine. But listening, talking, communicating, coordinating, problem solving and clarifying are a big part of what goes on in palliative care.
Palliative care can be given at any point in the course of an illness, while the patient is being treated or after treatment is done. It can be given in any place: hospital, home, rehabilitation unit, long-term care facility or hospice.
We’ve prepared a short video that shares one family’s personal story about palliative care.
Hospice is a program for people whose life expectancy is six months or less. Palliative care is a type of care delivered to people in hospice. But it’s not the only place patients get palliative care, as explained earlier.
Since palliative care is pretty new, even doctors and nurses don’t always think of it. So you might need to be proactive in asking about it.
Your family doctor is usually a good person to ask about palliative care. If the patient is in the hospital, the facility may have a palliative care doctor on staff. Ask.
If you need more information or help in finding palliative care, try these links.
Capc.org (Center to Advance Palliative Care)
Getpalliativecare.org (Get Palliative Care)