What is Palliative Care?
When fighting cancer or a chronic illness, it is easy to see how people sometimes forget they have choices. It seems as if there are only two options, battle or give up. Today, however, this is simply not the case. Sometimes, after months or years of receiving disease-directed care, treatment fails to have the desired effect and reduces a person’s quality of life to a point that is undesirable. In a situation like this, palliative care could be a good option, but because palliative care has a negative connotation, people sometimes fail to look into it.
Palliative care, sometimes known simply as supportive care, exists to help people live as long and as comfortably as they can. Palliative care is not about giving up or hastening death, but rather about managing pain and improving a patient’s quality of life. In the past, the term palliative care was conflated with hospice and generally understood as the care given once a patient had exhausted all of the treatment options available. However, it’s been expanded. It goes beyond the care given at the end of life and seeks to combat the emotional and physical effects of illness at any stage.
There are more than a few misconceptions floating around so we need to understand a few things about palliative care before we can go on:
- Palliative care is for chronically ill people, but they don’t have to be terminally ill. It’s appropriate for anyone who has a progressive illness or is dealing with hard-to-manage symptoms.
- Palliative care is not the same as hospice care. The main difference between the two is that you can have it any stage of an illness and you can receive palliative care alongside curative treatment. Generally, people who receive hospice care are no longer receiving curative treatment.
- Choosing to receive palliative care does not mean you need to give up your current doctor or doctors.
- Palliative care is available at multiple places, including hospitals, long term care facilities, clinics, or your own home.
When someone makes the decision to begin palliative care, a specialized team will start working with the patient to understand all of their treatment options. It is not designed to offer a cure, but the person receiving treatment will formulate goals regarding how they’d like to see their care go.
If you have an oncologist or oncology nurse currently working with you, they will begin palliative care with you, but may also reach out to a team of specialists. The core of a specialized palliative care team is made up of social workers, nurses, and doctors.
The type of treatment a specialized palliative care team will use depends upon the illness and the stage of that illness. Broadly, palliative care specialists will help manage and combat pain, nausea, fatigue, and anxiety. After general problems, they’ll work to battle illness specific symptoms. For example, if someone is suffering from congestive heart failure, the team may offer training on how to lie down, sit, or stand to improve breathing problems and leg pain that are commonly associated with congestive heart failure. They may also perform lymphatic drainage, which is a drugless approach to reducing leg swelling and pain. Further, patients will be trained in relaxation methods and breathing techniques to combat anxiety.
Again, it varies depending on the condition, but palliative care experts seek to treat symptoms from all angles. They’ll help patients and their families understand complicated medical information and they’ll help formulate a plan if the condition is expected to worsen. Rather than being overwhelmed by a sudden change, palliative care experts will ready the family and patient for the future.
Beyond dealing with the illness itself, if an individual is nearing the end of their life, a palliative care team can help a patient comprehend the legal aspects of an estate, inheritance laws, and property laws. For many people, the complications surrounding a legacy cause a lot of unnecessary stress in an already emotional time. For those not nearing end-of-life care, a palliative care team can help a patient obtain access to social benefits and other useful resources.
Although palliative care is not designed to cure, an NIH study has found that patients who receive palliative care are more likely to avoid 30-day re-hospitalizations. This is important not only because re-admittance to hospitals takes a toll on personal health, but also because hospital re-admittance is expensive. In 2004, the last year calculated, the NIH estimated that it cost Medicare $17.4 billion for American hospital readmissions. We can assume the cost has only risen with time.
Furthermore, if palliative care is being given towards the end of life, patients are more likely to die at home rather than in hospitals or other institutional settings. Most people prefer dying at home so this is especially good.
If palliative care is sought before the end of someone’s life, there are even more benefits. Studies have shown that people who receive palliative care early in an illness have less pain, better quality of life, and have less severe symptoms. Patients and families also feel more satisfied because they feel as if they have control of their treatment.
According to Cancer.org, a 2010 study of lung cancer patients showed that those who received palliative care alongside cancer treatment, lived three months longer than those who only received cancer treatment.
No matter what the illness, if it is serious and has serious symptoms, palliative care is a valuable option to look into. Palliative care should be available from diagnosis until it is no longer needed or no longer wanted. We no longer live in a world where there are only two options, and the more that people make use of palliative care, the better their lives can be.
Max Gottlieb is the content manager of Senior Planning in Phoenix, Arizona. Senior Planning gives free assistance to seniors and their families—mainly helping them access benefits and decide which type of senior care is best for their situation.