What Is Palliative Care? Definition, Types, and More

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Palliative care can be integral to a patient’s healing process. Learn all about palliative care, including types, benefits, and why it’s needed.

[Featured Image]: Home Health aide providing palliative care to a patient.

Every year, around 56.8 million people need palliative care [1]. Globally, only 14 percent of those who need palliative care currently receive it [1].

Palliative is specialized medical care for people diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease, and it can be integral to a patient’s healing process. Alongside curative treatment, palliative care can enhance the patient’s quality of life.

The Latin root word is palliat, which means “cloaked.” In a sense, palliative care acts as a healing cloak for a patient’s pain.

In this article, you’ll learn all about palliative care, including types, benefits, and why it’s needed.

What is palliative care?

Palliative care refers to the specialized medical care given to patients diagnosed with a serious illness, such as cancer, dementia, heart disease, and more. Provided alongside treatments intended to cure their illness, palliative care aims to enhance a person’s quality of life. It is best provided soon after diagnosis.

A palliative care team comprises several health care professionals that provide medical, social, emotional, and financial support to the patient and their family. This care is provided in hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, and sometimes at home.

Palliative care can include administering medication, advising changes to nutrition or diet, techniques for relaxing and relieving pain, emotional support, and more. Each patient case requires a tailored care plan for their unique needs.

Palliative care vs. hospice care

Palliative care is focused on patients seeking treatment for an illness and is delivered at any point from when the patient is diagnosed until doctors determine they can no longer receive treatment for a cure.

If a patient is suffering from a terminal illness with no available treatment and has six months or less to live, then they will be put on hospice care to ensure the patient is comfortable and relaxed for their final days. 

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Read more: Hospice Nurse: Duties, Salary, and How to Become One

Who needs palliative care?

People who need palliative care are patients suffering from symptoms of life-threatening illnesses. They could be living with the following:

  • Cancer

  • Heart disease

  • Blood and bone marrow disorders

  • Alzheimer’s

  • Kidney failure

  • Parkinson’s

  • Cystic fibrosis

  • Dementia

  • Stroke

But those who receive palliative care are not limited to the above. There are many illnesses that can benefit from palliative care.

Symptoms that palliative care can help heal

Palliative care can provide relief for symptoms such as:

  • Pain

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Depression or sadness

  • Anxiety

  • Constipation

  • Fatigue

  • Loss of appetite

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Shortness of breath

Types of palliative care

Palliative care comes in many forms, depending on the patient’s needs. These are the types of palliative care and what each looks like in practice.

Physical

The physical pain and side effects that accompany serious illnesses can feel overwhelming. When a patient is experiencing physical side effects from the illness or treatment, such as pain, fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, and trouble sleeping, it can take a toll on their overall well-being. Palliative care specialists, pain specialists, or sleep therapists, might be called in to help manage these symptoms and side effects.

Social

While experiencing pain, discomfort, or sadness while you are ill, patients may find it difficult to connect with caregivers or family members about how they feel. Patients may not want to burden them and sometimes need an objective point of view or even just a ride to and from the hospital.

Social workers offer support by devising how to call a family meeting or ride services information. They can even provide palliative care for caregivers when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Emotional

During an illness, patients may feel physically in pain, but they can also experience a wide range of emotions. Patients might feel sad, angry, anxious, and grateful all at once. Emotional palliative care can look like gaining access to a support group or a mental health professional to help them cope with the emotions.

Mental

Alongside emotional care, illness’ symptoms, treatments, and medications can affect the mind. Patients might feel stressed and have a hard time thinking clearly if they can’t sleep. They could be worrying about children or parents if they cannot take care of them. Mental health counselors and support groups can suggest yoga, art, walking, and other relaxing activities.

Spiritual

While suffering from a serious illness such as cancer or dementia, patients may encounter thoughts about nearing death or seeking greater purpose upon surviving an illness. One aspect of palliative care can be spiritual, so if a patient belongs to a church, synagogue, or temple, leaders or community members of their chosen faith can help them deal with the situation in a positive way.

Financial

Finally, palliative care might come in the form of financial assistance. Hospital bills and treatments can add up. Patients may need child or pet care while they’re ill. Social workers or financial counselors can talk through billing and insurance, help apply for disability payments or medical leave, find programs that deliver low-cost medicine, and ideate other financial alternatives.

Benefits of palliative care

Palliative care can provide the following benefits for patients:

  • Support the patient and their family with holistic support of the body, mind, and spirit

  • Help patients understand treatment plans (translators or interpreters can be critical to a palliative care team) and pay for them

  • Improve their quality of life by relieving pain and symptoms

  • Provide referrals to community resources or other types of support

  • Extend the life of the patient [2]

Ultimately, palliative care is beneficial for patients, but it is also cost effective and benefits the health care system. According to the Center to Advance Palliative Care, if palliative care were fully integrated into US hospitals, savings could amount to $6 billion per year [2]

The need for access to palliative care

As stated above, only around 14 percent of those who need palliative care receive it, according to the World Health Organization [1]. That number increases when applied to the United States, where up to two thirds of people who could benefit from palliative care don’t receive it [3]. Studies have consistently shown that palliative care can have substantial benefits for patients, —approximately 75 percent of people approaching the end of their lives could benefit from it [4,5]. 

The reason palliative care falls short is because it requires a team of palliative care specialists and significant upfront financial investment from hospitals. The return on investment can be low, if there is any at all. 

Careers in palliative care

Palliative care requires a team of doctors, nurses, assistants, and specialists. Here are some careers in palliative care:

  • Palliative care physician: A palliative care physician is a doctor who is trained to consider palliative care in their practice. They might focus on terminal illnesses such as cancer or heart failure.

  • Palliative nurse: Palliative nurses provide basic medical care and sometimes offer counseling to patients. 

  • Social worker: A social worker works on a palliative care team to provide resources for patients, such as access to community-based support, transportation, or therapy.

  • Therapist: Therapists are often part of palliative care to provide emotional and mental health support to patients.

  • Hospice nurse: If and when patients switch from palliative to hospice care, a hospice nurse is trained to specifically focus on quality of life, comfort, and happiness in one’s final days.

  • Home health aide: Sometimes, palliative care is delivered at home. A home health aide provides assistance with taking medication, cooking and eating food, and other essential tasks. 

Start learning palliative care today

People who are seriously ill also need social, psychological, and spiritual care. With the Palliative Care: It’s Not Just Hospice Specialization from the University of Colorado, you’ll gain a comprehensive introduction to the core concepts of palliative care.

In seven months or less, you’ll be equipped with the skills and knowledge to support people to live life to the fullest despite recovering from a serious illness.

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Article sources

1

World Health Organization. “Palliative Care, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/palliative-care.” Accessed October 25, 2022.

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