What is Palliative Care?

Many people associate palliative care with hospice care, which is designed to provide comfort for patients at the end stages of life. However, palliative care is actually an up-and-coming medical specialty that is focused on improving the overall quality of life of patients who suffer from serious or chronic illnesses. Right now, more than 1,400 hospitals in the United States have palliative care programs. Learn more about palliative care and whether it may be a helpful option for you or your family member.

A patient’s palliative care team can consist of a number of specialists, from doctors, to nurses, social workers, chaplains, dieticians, and mental health professionals. These team members perform a variety of services designed to enhance the patient’s quality of life.

For example, a social worker may help a cancer patient find the right wig after he or she loses hair to chemotherapy, while a nurse may help the patient manage pain more effectively. For mesothelioma patients who tend to lose significant weight during treatment, a dietician or nutritionist may also be helpful. Palliative care team members can do anything from prescribing medications to picking up dry cleaning, depending on the needs and goals of a particular patient.

Palliative care is unique to each patient. Team members work closely with the patient and his or her family members to determine which services will be most meaningful and what their major priorities are, then they design a unique team and holistic strategy to meet those needs. Other functions palliative team members may perform include educating the patient’s family about his or her illness and treatment options, offering a much-needed break for family caregivers, and helping with patient transportation.

Is palliative care effective? Most experts agree that it is. In a New England Journal of Medicine study published in 2010, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found lower rates of depression and better quality of life in advanced lung cancer patients who received early palliative care. What’s more, the patients in the study who were given palliative care tended to live up to 2.7 months longer than patients who did not have a palliative care team.

If you would like to learn more about palliative care for yourself or for a loved one, contact a trusted doctor or social worker. They can give you valuable information and help you take the first steps in establishing a palliative care team.