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Palliative care: Easing the course of serious illness

Palliative care can provide pain and symptom relief, support and coordinated, holistic care for people who have serious illnesses. Find out more about palliative care.

If you or a loved one has a serious or life-threatening illness, you might have thought about palliative care. To understand palliative care and how it can help relieve pain and improve quality of life, consider the following questions.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care aims to improve quality of life for people who have advanced illnesses, as well as their families. Palliative care also takes into account the emotional, physical and spiritual needs and goals of the person who's being treated and his or her family. Palliative care doesn't replace primary medical treatment. Instead, palliative care is provided in conjunction with all other medical treatment.

Who can benefit from palliative care?

Anyone who has a serious or life-threatening illness can benefit from palliative care, either to treat signs and symptoms of the disease or to ease the side effects of treatment. In addition, palliative care can help if you or a loved one needs help understanding more about an illness or coordinating medical care.

How does palliative care work?

Palliative care can be provided throughout treatment for a serious illness — whether you or your loved one is being treated on an outpatient basis or in a hospital, nursing home or through hospice. This type of treatment can be provided by various specialists, including doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, counselors, chaplains, registered dietitians, pharmacists and rehabilitation specialists.

A palliative care specialist works with the primary care doctor and a team of other professionals to create a treatment plan that eases symptoms, relieves pain, addresses spiritual and psychological concerns, and helps maintain dignity and comfort. By reducing signs and symptoms during treatment, you or your loved one may be more likely to complete treatment and maintain an improved quality of life.

A palliative care specialist can also help you or your loved one communicate with doctors and family members and create a smooth transition between the hospital and home care or nursing facilities. The palliative care team will educate you or your loved one as well as other family members about what to expect and schedule routine meetings to discuss goals and ongoing care. If necessary, a palliative care specialist can help coordinate financial and legal assistance.

How does palliative care differ from hospice care?

Palliative care is available at any time during a serious or life-threatening illness, while hospice care is available only during the final months of life — when curative or life-prolonging treatments have been stopped. You don't have to be in hospice to receive palliative care.

What are some real-life examples of palliative care?

Here's one example of how palliative care works: You have a history of heart failure and are having trouble getting around the house due to worsening shortness of breath. You live at home with a partner who has health problems, too. You find that getting all of the care you and your partner need is becoming more difficult and you're not sure how to plan for the future. This has been stressful for you and your family physically, psychologically, spiritually and financially. A palliative care specialist will work with your primary care doctor and a team of specialists to determine which medications, supportive services and advanced care planning can provide the best symptom relief. The palliative care team may organize visits by a chaplain, a psychologist and other home health agencies.

How do I obtain palliative care?

If you're interested in obtaining palliative care for yourself or a loved one, ask your doctor or your loved one's doctor for a referral to a palliative care specialist.

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