Palliative care appropriate at any age, stage in a serious illness

Palliative care is often mistaken for hospice care. If you or your loved one is suffering from a serious illness, it’s important to know the difference and what is available to you.

Hospice care is appropriate when medical treatments cannot offer a cure. Hospice professionals provide care to people who have an advanced illness and are in their last stages of life (prognosis of six months or less). Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv), however, may be given at any time during a patient’s illness, from diagnosis on, regardless of life expectancy. Palliative care may also be provided along with curative (meaning lifesaving or life-prolonging) treatment.

Most doctors are trained to focus on curing and treating your illness. But you may have symptoms that make it difficult to be as active as you want to be, or that impact your overall quality of life. This is where palliative care teams come into play.

Teams are made up of specially trained doctors, nurses and other providers. They focus on treating and relieving your symptoms and side effects, such as shortness of breath, pain, lack of appetite and fatigue. They can also treat physical and mental stress caused by a serious illness—whatever your diagnosis. In fact, the word “palliative” itself comes from the word “palliate,” which means to make the effects of something less painful, harmful or harsh.

Palliative care also emphasizes making sure you are informed. Teams help you understand the pros and cons of treatments and help you make decisions about treatment options. They also offer spiritual or religious support, and can help match your goals and values to your medical care.

Palliative care teams work with you, your other doctors, and your family to coordinate all aspects of your care. They focus on you as a whole person, not just the part of you that is sick.

Research shows that those with a serious or chronic illness who receive this extra layer of support see a number of benefits, like better symptom control, improved quality of life, satisfaction with care, fewer hospital and emergency room visits, and lower medical costs.

So, where do you start? If you think palliative care could be right for you, the first step is to talk to your doctor. If costs concern you, you should know that services are covered by most private insurance plans as well as Medicare and Medicaid. Services are also flexible and based on your needs.

Medical care can be confusing. Palliative care teams can help you and your family talk through what you want, and help you navigate a very complex system. You don’t have to cope with the day-to-day challenges of living with a serious illness alone. Palliative care can give you a better quality of life.

Learn more about palliative care at

Jeanette Abell, MDJeanette M. Abell, MD, MBA, is associate chair of Medicine and medical director of Hospitalists and Palliative Medicine at Anne Arundel Medical Center. 

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