What Is Palliative Care?

Much like hospice care, palliative care programs focus on keeping terminally ill patients comfortable, while helping patients, family members, and caregivers cope with the dying process.

By Dr. Diane Meier

No one should have to suffer through an illness or die alone or in pain. Palliative, or “comfort,” care recognizes that death is a normal part of life and tries to prepare patients and families to meet it so that we can all die on our own terms. From the start of a serious or terminal illness, practitioners try to reduce the burden on family caregivers by identifying and providing for patient and family needs, whether physical, emotional, practical, or spiritual.

Palliative care services for the seriously ill, their caregivers, families, and loved ones include:

Curative Or Life-Prolonging Treatments

While hospice care usually requires that patients give up such treatments, palliative care services make no such injunction. Palliative care patients can receive all of the benefits of comfort care while continuing curative treatment of their condition.

Relief Of Physical Suffering

Palliative care professionals provide highly skilled symptom management for pain, anxiety, constipation, weakness, and many other kinds of discomfort. They also help patients and families deal with side effects of therapies.

Attention To Emotional Needs

Palliative care recognizes that emotional and spiritual distress are important sources of suffering. Palliative care teams can offer help with non-physical pain through counseling and spiritual support.

Communication

Palliative care teams are made up not only of medical and nursing practitioners, but social workers, clergy, pharmacists, and physical and occupational therapists. Thanks to their interdisciplinary nature, the teams can facilitate frank discussions between all the relevant players about what is needed during a patient’s illness, as well as help patients identify their own goals for the dying process.

Guarantee Of 24/7 Access To Help

By coordinating communication between doctors, home care nurses, pharmacists, hospital and nursing home staff, palliative care teams ensure that patients and their families can always reach someone quickly with questions. After a hospital stay, palliative care teams can arrange reliable at-home care so that patients and their families don’t fall through the cracks. Teams can organize practical help with transportation, at-home equipment, medications, and day-to-day decision-making.

Support For The Bereaved Family

Palliative care programs don’t forget about the family after a patient dies. They recognize that family caregivers need help and support after an illness and make sure that support and counseling services are available to those who need them.

Sounds Good. How Do I Get Palliative Care?

While palliative care can be given to any patient in any part of a hospital, doctor’s office, or even at home, hospital and nursing home-based palliative care programs are still few and far between. Ask your doctor, nurse or local hospice program if there is a palliative care program available in your hospital or community. And if there isn’t one, ask why.

Dr. Diane Meier is the Director of the Hertzberg Palliative Care Institute and Professor of Geriatrics and Internal Medicine, and the Catherine Gaisman Professor of Medical Ethics at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. Dr. Meier is an active clinician who has chaired a number of panels on specialty care. She has served at Mt. Sinai since 1983 and is a graduate of Northwestern University Medical School.

Educational Broadcasting Corporation/Public Affairs Television, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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