When can you get Palliative Care?

When can you get Palliative Care?

by Barb Green, Parish Nurse Milton, Wis.


Palliative care is comfort care given to a patient who has a serious or life-threatening disease, and is provided from the time of diagnosis and throughout the course of illness. A palliative care specialist will work with a team of health care professionals such as doctors, nurses, dieticians, pharmacists and social workers.

This should not be confused with hospice. Palliative care is offered earlier in the disease process and is given along with treatment for the disease. The goal is to maintain the best possible quality of life. (Hospice care is a form of palliative care that is given when therapies are no longer controlling the disease and the diagnosis is terminal.)

Palliative care focuses on relieving the symptoms, pain and stress of serious illness and is widely available. About two-thirds of hospitals with 50 or more beds offer these services.

Patients who get this type of care may not only enjoy improved quality of life but may even live longer than those who do not get these services. Medicare or private health insurance usually covers the cost.

Many physicians may be unfamiliar with palliative care or fail to recommend it because they equate it with hospice or end-of-life care. This is not true. You can receive palliative care along with treatment. You don’t have to be dying to get it; anyone with a serious illness is eligible.

This team-based approach works with your family and doctors to coordinate treatment, provide services that ease suffering, and offer counseling. These services address:

•Physical concerns: pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, shortness of breath, insomnia

•Emotional and coping concerns: depression, anxiety and fear

•Practical concerns: financial, insurance questions, completion of advance directives

•Spiritual concerns: struggles with doubt and values, and finding peace and acceptance

If your doctor doesn’t suggest palliative care, ask about it. He or she should be able to offer a referral. Usually these services are administered through a hospital, hospice program or independent agency.

To get the most from palliative care, talk to the program coordinator about what your loved one needs most. Is it relief from pain, nausea or other symptoms? Help managing side effects of drugs or the stress of illness? Guidance about treatment options?

Making the transition from curative treatment to end-of-life care is a key part of palliative care. The team helps patients and their families prepare for physical changes that may occur near the end of life and for emotional issues that arise about leaving loved ones behind. The team also helps families decide when to withdraw treatment, when to transition to hospice care and when to seek grief counseling.

Research shows that palliative care and its many components are beneficial to patient and family health and well-being. Patients whose symptoms are controlled and who are able to communicate their emotional needs have a better experience with their medical care. Their quality of life and physical symptoms improve. They also have lower hospital costs than those who don’t have this type of service.

The palliative care team helps determine treatment priorities and helps patients avoid unnecessary tests and procedures. One study found that those who receive palliative care spend $6,900 less per hospital admission than those who have aggressive treatment.

Palliative care is a relatively new addition to medical treatment. If given the choice, most of us would choose quality of life over quantity. No one wants repeated hospitalizations that really don’t solve the underlying problem.

As you make decisions concerning your own health or that of a loved one, remember to make palliative care one of your options.

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