What is “Palliative Care”
Palliative care is a multidisciplinary approach to specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the symptoms, pain, physical stress, and mental stress of a serious illness—whatever the diagnosis. The goal of such therapy is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family. Palliative care is provided by a team of physicians, nurses, and other health professionals who work together with the primary care physician and referred specialists (or, for patients who don’t have those, hospital or hospice staff) to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided along with curative treatment.
Physicians sometimes use the term palliative care in a sense meaning palliative therapies without curative intent, when no cure can be expected (as often happens in late-stage cancers). For example, tumor de-bulking can continue to reduce pain from mass effect even when it is no longer curative. A clearer usage is palliative, non-curative therapy when that is what is meant, because palliative care can be used along with curative or aggressive therapies.
Starting in 2006 in the United States, palliative medicine is now a board certified sub-speciality of internal medicine with specialized fellowships for physicians who are interested in the field. Palliative care utilizes a multidisciplinary approach to patient care, relying on input from pharmacists, nurses, chaplains, social workers, psychologists and other allied health professionals in formulating a plan of care to relieve suffering in all areas of a patient’s life. This multidisciplinary approach allows the palliative care team to address physical, emotional, spiritual and social concerns that arise with advanced illness.
Medications and treatments are said to have a palliative effect if they relieve symptoms without having a curative effect on the underlying disease or cause. This can include treating nausea related to chemotherapy or something as simple as morphine to treat the pain of broken leg or ibuprofen to treat aching related to an influenza (flu) infection.
Although the concept of palliative care is not new, most physicians have traditionally concentrated on trying to cure patients. Treatments for the alleviation of symptoms were viewed as hazardous and seen as inviting addiction and other unwanted side effects.
The focus on a person’s quality of life has increased greatly since the 1990s. In the United States today, 55% of hospitals with more than 100 beds offer a palliative-care program, and nearly one-fifth of community hospitals have palliative-care programs. A relatively recent development is the palliative-care team, a dedicated health care team that is entirely geared toward palliative treatment.