Palliative care is a unique form of care, distinct from hospice, and an essential part of caregiving for those with long term, chronic, or terminal illness.
The word hospice is bandied about today with little thought as to its actual purpose and its importance in the end of life care of individuals. Palliative care, too often used interchangeably with hospice, and then believed to be a different form of care for the dying, is instead a distinct and different form of long term treatment. Hospice care, defined as medical care and support intended for terminally ill patients and their families, is distinctly different from palliative care, which is physical, psychological, and spiritual holistically intertwined, intended to ease patients’ quality of life, regardless of whether their illnesses are necessarily terminal. What makes it special and important? And why should it be considered a viable option for those who live with long term illnesses?
Palliative Care’s Purpose
Hospice care is an essential and vital program of its own, giving comfort to end of life patients as they transition into their end stages of being. Palliative care, in contrast, provides comfort to those who may be suffering from life-threatening or ultimately life-ending illnesses, but who still need quality of life care to allow them to live day to day in as close to a normal setting as possible. It is a holistic approach to caregiving, bringing patient and both professional and personal caregivers together to discuss the needs and desires of the person needed treatment.
As outlined on the Center to Advance Palliative Care’s website, a team of caregivers “will also spend time communicating deeply with you. They will give you control over your care by truly exploring your goal…[t]hey will help you gain the strength to carry on with daily life and improve your quality of life.” The doctors, nurses, counselors, and other specialists who work in the field of long term or palliative care are trained to treat the whole person as a living person, rather than someone who has a limit on their time left on the earth. They bring this expertise into the homes and facilities where the potential patient resides, and they provide a comprehensive plan of treatment that focuses on a long term solution.
The Difference Palliative Care Can Make
Palliative care provides dignity, not just to the individual undergoing treatment, but to those who are closest to them. It also isn’t dictated by someone’s life expectancy, but rather the desired quality of the life they’re living at any stage of an illness. This subspecialty addresses the physical and psychological stressors of living with long-term, chronic illnesses, going beyond pain management and into symptom treatment and reduction, both of the body and the mind.
Some of the unique benefits of palliative care include:
- Treatment of the whole person, physically, mentally, and spiritually;
- Addressing a disease or long-term illness at any stage, not just end of life;
- Help transitioning from living with a disease to its potential remission or into hospice care as a disease progresses;
- Structured planning of day to day living, taking into account the unique restrictions of the one receiving palliative care.
Scholarly research has shown that palliative care’s treatments of diseases can actually assist in the curative rate of those suffering with certain diseases, such as the study that was done while patients were undergoing stem cell treatments for certain types of cancer. And palliative care does not halt treatment of cancer or other diseases. It is an independent, supplemental treatment designed to have benefits proven to go beyond physical comfort. In addition, palliative care and its providers can ease the burden on a patient’s family members. They bring professionalism and medical knowledge into the household or care facility, which takes the pressure off of a loved one who may not be able to provide the same level of care. A provider will know what information is important to relay to the patient’s primary care physician or other healthcare professional, things that caregivers without medical training may not consider pertinent or realize are necessary to convey. They work in tandem with family and friends, giving everyone a chance to live and to enjoy life while they tend to the details of administering care.
Increasing Awareness of Palliative Care’s Value
Despite the obvious benefits provided by palliative care, recent studies have shown that 75% of hospitals have no or limited access to this valuable resource for patients or their families. The majority of health care facilities are tragically understaffed, forcing individuals to look outside of their primary network to find options that will work with them and their insurance to provide the care that they both need and deserve to maintain their dignity as they transition through the stages of their respective illnesses.
There is, however, extensive work being done to spread the word of the unique benefits that palliative care provides. Doctors and other healthcare professionals are speaking up in favor of finding the funding and legislative support to provide palliative care for everyone who needs its services. An annual World Hospice and Palliative Care Day has been started to promote the knowledge and understanding of this valuable healthcare resource. A series of informative discussions, concerts, and other events helps to spread awareness of how important the school of palliative care is, for caregivers and patients alike.