Palliative Care 101: Field Focusing on Quality of Life

CINCINNATI—There are often misconceptions and confusion when discussing the field of palliative care.

Palliative care began in the hospice movement but is now widely used outside of traditional hospice care. The first United States hospital-based palliative care programs began in the late 1980s.

With National Hospice and Palliative Care Month being recognized in November, Georgia Anderson, manager of palliative care and outpatient social work within the University of Cincinnati Cancer Institute, says it’s important to know the difference between the two fields and that palliative care can greatly improve life for those who are living with a painful or debilitating illness.

“Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses, and it specifically focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness—whatever the diagnosis,” she says. “Hospice is end-of-life care, but palliative care does not have to be provided strictly at the end of life. Palliative care is provided at the same time as curative treatment. The overall goal of palliative care is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family throughout the course of illness.”

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other specialists who work together with a patient’s other doctors to provide extra support, both physically and mentally.

“It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided along with traditional, curative treatment,” Anderson says, adding that palliative care has been shown to be particularly helpful in patients with cancer, cardiac diseases, like congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney failure, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and other serious, chronic conditions.

“Palliative care is truly a medical specialty and the whole goal of it is to relieve suffering from the symptoms that come from treatment, like pain, fatigue or even depression,” she says. “It can help patients gain the strength to carry on with daily life and improve their ability to tolerate medical treatments. Additionally, it helps patients feel like they have more control over their care by giving them choices about their treatment options and overall goals.”

She adds that there is a strong family component to palliative care and that the palliative care team members do their best to be a support network for anyone who may need them.

“It’s a partnership, where the team not only supports the patient and their family every step of the way by controlling symptoms, but also by improving understanding of treatment options and goals,” Anderson says. “Palliative care doesn’t mean preparing someone to die; it’s helping a person live comfortably and helping them make their own decisions about care.”

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