Differences between palliative and hospice care described in new tip sheet

Liz Seegert


Photo: Dominic Smith via Flickr

You may have heard about Jeopardy host Alex Trebec’s announcement this year that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. It’s a devastating disease, with only about a 9% relative five-year survival rate for those at any stage of the disease, and an even more dismal 3% five-year survival rate for those in a late stage like Trebec, according to the American Cancer Society.

While surgery may not be viable for someone in such a late stage of the disease, Trebec, 78, has vowed to fight hard to beat it. CBS News reported that chemotherapy and radiation may still be viable treatments. Symptom management through palliative care will also play a key role for him, as it does for tens of thousands of other cancer patients and millions of people with other debilitating diseases.

Just because someone receives palliative care doesn’t necessarily mean death is imminent, according to the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CPAC), which notes that “the goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.”

As this new AHCJ tip sheet describes, palliative and end-of-life care often are intertwined, but palliative care also may be provided as a stand-alone layer of extra support. CPAC cites numerous studies showing that palliative care significantly improves patient quality of life and lowers symptom burden. By improving a patient’s quality of life, it relieves stress during the person’s interactions with the health care system.

Palliative care involves an interdisciplinary, collaborative, team-based approach that encompasses a person’s emotional, social, and spiritual needs too. Unlike hospice, it is offered alongside curative treatment.

So a cancer patient like Trebec might receive chemotherapy and radiation, along with pain management; social support and psychological counseling for depression or anxiety. There also may be treatment for side effects such as nausea or fatigue, as well as connections to programs and services to support him and his family throughout the illness.

Palliative specialists can coordinate transitions between hospital, skilled nursing facilities and home. However, not all insurance plans cover such care, or may only cover hospital-based palliative care. This article from Pew Charitable Trusts looks at how home-based palliative care could have saved Medicare significant costs, and saved one very elderly patient several avoidable trips to the hospital.

Palliative care also helps families cope with the stress and anxiety of a seriously ill loved one. This story from the University of Alabama, Birmingham Center for Palliative and Supportive Care looks at some of the psychological and counseling services offered to relatives.

It can be easy for your audience to misunderstand palliative care, so it’s incumbent to draw clear distinctions between it and hospice care. This Health Affairs article looks at how messages on home- and community-based palliative care get muddled. Takeaways from the tip sheet should help to clarify things.

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Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert is AHCJ’s health beat leader for aging. She’s an award-winning, independent health journalist based in New York’s Hudson Valley, who writes about caregiving, dementia, access to care, nursing homes and policy. As AHCJ’s health beat leader for aging,