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Heard of palliative care? The explanation is a relief

Posted August 15

70 percent of Americans are unfamiliar with palliative medicine.

This story was written for our sponsor, Transitions LifeCare.

As Paula was receiving chemotherapy to treat her cancer, there were days when she didn't know which made her feel worse -- the disease or the treatment.

To help soothe the symptoms and side effects, Paula's oncologist referred her to a team with a specialty in a field called palliative medicine, a term which a survey by Center to Advance Palliative Care found was unfamiliar to 70 percent of Americans.

The word "palliative" means to relieve a problem without addressing the underlying cause. Thus, "palliative care" provides relief from the symptoms and stress of serious illness without treating the illness or disease itself.

The goal is to provide comfort and a better quality of life for the person with the illness, as well as the family members caring for them.

A team of specialists, including doctors, nurses and social workers, provides palliative care. This specialty is among the most recently recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties, with "hospice and palliative medicine" coming aboard officially in 2006.

"Often, palliative care is literally a huge relief to patients and their families," said Dr. Laura Patel, chief medical officer at Transitions LifeCare. "Not only do experts manage symptoms to help keep patients comfortable and out of the emergency room or hospital, the team also helps families understand their loved one's condition, different options for care and what to expect as the illness progresses. Such knowledge can relieve stress and fear, adding to quality of life."

Perhaps the relative newness of the specialty is one reason a majority of Americans feel uninformed about it.

The difference between palliative care and hospice care

Because hospice and palliative medicine are linked together as a specialty -- and both can be provided by the same medical team -- some may confuse them or consider them to be the same thing. But there are significant differences between the two.

Palliative care is appropriate at any stage of any serious illness and can be provided together with curative treatments. In fact, as in Paula's case, palliative care often can help offset the side effects of curative treatments, such as chemo.

Hospice care is provided when a serious illness has progressed to the stage when doctors predict the patient has only about six months or less to live. To be eligible for hospice care, the patient also has to forgo curative treatments and focus solely on treatments designed to provide comfort by relieving pain and other symptoms.

Palliative services are growing but vary by provider

Palliative care is so effective that palliative care teams in hospitals have more than doubled during the past 12 years, with more than 60 percent of hospitals with 50 beds or more providing palliative services.

However, the type and level of palliative care can vary greatly among providers.

"While all types of palliative care may be helpful, many practitioners provide only a consultation with a physician, nurse and social worker while the patient is in the hospital, with follow-up phone support at home," Patel said. "If you prefer to have hands-on palliative care for the patient in their home, be sure to ask your provider about the details of their services."

In Paula's case, palliative care in her home enabled her to stay there as she wished for nearly two years until transitioning to a hospice care center at the end of life.

This story was written for our sponsor, Transitions LifeCare.

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