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Struggling with a serious illness? Palliative care can help

Posted December 12, 2019 5:00 a.m. EST

Many patients and their families have turned to palliative care to relieve symptoms, improve quality of life, and offer support. (Photo Courtesy of Transitions LifeCare)

This story was written for our sponsor, Transitions LifeCare.

Serious illnesses like cancer and heart disease are physically, mentally and emotionally challenging for not only the patient, but loved ones as well. Oftentimes, serious illnesses prevent patients from enjoying their normal quality of life and can put a halt to their regular routines, especially if being treated in a non-home based facility for an extended period of time.

Many patients and their families have turned to palliative care to relieve symptoms, improve quality of life, and offer support. Palliative care uses medical, clinical and therapeutic techniques to relieve and prevent pain during illness, as well as treat symptoms like anxiety and stress, all in the comfort of a patient's home. Additionally, it can be used in combination with other medical treatments like chemotherapy and dialysis.

"Palliative care is a type of medical care provided by a variety of experts in different disciplines — physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, spiritual care providers and others. It's really a way to address the whole person and the whole family as they are dealing with a life changing or serious illness," explained Dr. Laura Patel.

Patel oversees the palliative care program at Transitions LifeCare, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Raleigh. Transitions LifeCare is the largest provider of palliative care in North Carolina and offers a comprehensive circle of expert care and support in a variety of focuses.

"It's really meant to be an extra layer of support as the patient and family are going through their treatments," Patel continued.

Palliative care is often confused with hospice care. While both palliative and hospice care provide much needed services to patients struggling with illness, palliative care is different in the sense that it is not exclusively for end-of-life situations.

Hospice is focused on the last stages of life when medical treatments that have been provided are no longer effective and doctors estimate that a person only has six months or less left to live. Patel emphasized that palliative care does not mean that a patient has reached a concluding stage and instead serves seriously ill patients that may want a more holistic approach.

"We have many patients who are not at the end of life, but they are going through a serious illness and they need that extra layer, that extra assistance to help them get through it," she said.

Patel said there is evidence that shows early involvement of palliative care for patients with cancer improves outcomes, rates of depression, quality of life and may even impact the longevity of life in some cases.

One patient in particular with heart failure and a chronic lung condition chose palliative care after being in and out of the hospital every month for six months straight, Patel said.

"When our team got involved, we were able to help her be more confident with her care plan, make sure she actually had access to her medications, talk to her about her goals, and make sure that her caregivers and her family were aware of these goals and supported her," Patel recalled. "There was somebody for her to call in the evening or the middle of the night when she started to get worried or anxious, and help calm things down and follow up with a visit shortly after."

It's this type of approach — one that addresses all the aspects of being ill beyond the physical presentations alone — that makes palliative care such a unique option for patients. Because of palliative care, this particular patient has had only one hospitalization in the past two years. Patel opined the ability to keep people at home is a big advantage of palliative care and can be very beneficial, especially for older patients.

"What we excel at is bringing care to people where they live," she said.

This story was written for our sponsor, Transitions LifeCare.

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