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What is Palliative Care?

August 18, 2022

Healthy Aging Wellness
social worker talking to senior couple at home

Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing patients relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness, no matter the diagnosis or stage of disease. 

“Palliative care combines a philosophy of care and patient-centered services that focus on symptom relief, pain management, stress management, and improving the patient’s overall quality of life during serious illness,” says Sarah West, MD, a fellowship-trained Hospice and Palliative Care physician with Riverside Health System.

The goal of palliative care teams is to improve the quality of life for patients and their families. Palliative care helps with the different stages of a serious illness. This medical specialty also helps people:

  • Understand their illness 
  • Put their desires, goals, and decisions for their care first
  • Coordinate with those involved in their care
  • Understand their treatment options and medical decisions
  • Live with symptoms of long-term conditions such as pain, shortness of breath, or anxiety 
  • Cope with side effects of treatments such as nausea, nerve pain, or shortness of breath
  • Reduce unnecessary hospital visits
  • Focus on their body, mind, and spirit during serious illness

This special type of care is based on the needs of the patient and family, and not their prognosis. Palliative care is appropriate at any age and stage in a serious illness, and it can be provided alongside treatment that aims to cure a condition. 

Palliative care helps people who are experiencing the symptoms and challenges associated with serious illnesses, such as: 

  • Cancer
  • Congestive heart failure (CHF) or other heart disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Kidney failure
  • Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease
  • End-stage liver disease
  • Blood and bone marrow disorders that require a stem cell transplant
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Dementia
  • End-stage liver disease
  • Lung disease

Who Provides Palliative Care?

Palliative care is provided by a trained team of doctors, nurses, and experts who work together with a patient’s other doctors to provide an extra level of support. Some of the team members who provide palliative care might include:

  • Doctors who are subspecialists in palliative medicine
  • Nurses
  • Nurse practitioners
  • Physician assistants
  • Social workers
  • Therapists and/or chaplains trained in palliative care

Is Hospice Different Than Palliative Care?

Hospice care is a specialized type of palliative care that is provided in the final months or weeks of life. Hospice care is needed when patients and their families no longer wish to pursue treatments that are meant to slow the progression of an illness, and instead focus only on comfort care. Hospice care services are generally covered in full by Medicare and most other insurances.

Does Insurance Cover Palliative Care?

Most private insurance plans partially cover palliative care services. Medicare and Medicaid also typically cover most of these services. If you are a veteran, you may also be eligible for palliative care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

If you have concerns about paying for palliative care, you can find resources from a social worker, care manager, or financial advisor at your hospital or clinic.

Where Else Should I Know About Palliative Care?

“Palliative care can also provide emotional and spiritual support to your family members by educating them about your situation, and supporting them as caregivers,” says Dr. West.

To learn more about the benefits of palliative care, talk with your loved one’s care team. You can also find out more about the palliative care services available in your area by calling (757) 594-5600 or visiting Riverside’s online Palliative Care resources.

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