Palliative care, also known as comfort care, isn’t just for people at the end of life. It is also an effective approach when provided in conjunction with curative care and treatments for people facing serious illnesses such as cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart disease.
Many people automatically think “hospice” when palliative care is suggested as an adjunct to treatment, but as this new tip sheet details, palliative care is helpful at any stage of illness. It not only improves the quality of life and helps with symptom management, but can also help patients understand their medical options.
A dedicated, interdisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, social workers, therapists, religious or spiritual advisors, pharmacists, and nutritionists collaborate works in cooperation with other health providers, to develop a personalized plan of care, ensuring all of the person’s needs — not only physical needs — are met according to the National Institute on Aging. These might include alleviating or managing:
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite
- Sleep problems
- Medication or treatment side effects
The team also provides care coordination and emotional and social support for the patient and family members. Some people mistakenly believe they have to give up their current physician or medical team to receive palliative care, but that’s not the case. It can be provided at the time of diagnosis or at any point during the disease process, in the hospital, in outpatient settings, or in the home (or other residences, like a nursing home).
The World Health Organization estimates that only about 14% of people needing palliative care worldwide receive it due to shortages of many pain-relieving drugs, lack of appropriate policies and not enough trained professionals There’s also evidence that palliative care can reduce costs for health systems and hospitals, especially when initiated early. The global need for palliative care will continue to grow as a result of the aging of populations and the rising burden of non-communicable diseases and some communicable diseases, according to the WHO.
Palliative care is fundamental to health and human dignity and is a basic human right, according to the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard. However, misinformation and lack of education persist among those needing these services, as well as among some health care providers. When reporting on serious illnesses, journalists can help demystify palliative care and help encourage more people in need to take advantage of it.