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Providing Comfort: Palliative Care

Your mother was diagnosed with heart disease, and has been getting progressively worse. She says that she is having some discomfort and is frequently short of breath. Because of this, she wonít go out socially and has lost interest in her favorite hobbies. Her doctor said she may benefit greatly from something called palliative care, but you are hesitant because we donít know what is involved.

Little wonder that people get confused with some of the medical terminology today. Because of the tremendous strides that the health care field has made to diagnose and treat illnesses, new approaches to care emerge constantly.

Palliative care addresses the needs of patients who have chronic and/or life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and AIDS. A medical specialty, palliative care enhances the individualís overall quality of life by providing a wide range of services. This article gives an overview of palliative care and describes how it treats the whole person.

What Is Palliative Care? Palliative care is a team-oriented approach for people whose illnesses do not respond to curative treatment. It focuses on the management of the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of patients and their families so that they can live life to the fullest each day. Also known as comfort care, palliative care does not aim to cure the illness. Rather, it provides comfort and maintains the highest possible quality of life for patients and their families. While a person can receive palliative care at any stage of his or her illness, it plays its biggest role at the end of life to meet the patientís critical needs.

A common misconception is that only cancer patients receive palliative care.
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How Does It Work? Palliative care focuses on the whole person during the course of the illness. To do this, it brings together a diverse team of professionals, including:

  • Physicians
  • Nurses
  • Pharmacists
  • Social workers
  • Pastoral counselors
  • Physical therapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Music therapists
  • Art therapists
  • Specially trained volunteers

This team works with the patient and family members to provide a continuum of care that can begin with the onset of an illness or whenever comfort, support, and quality of life issues become significant concerns.

Did You Know? In general, palliative care is an umbrella term that refers to relieving symptoms while not pursuing a cure for the disease. Originally linked to hospice care, palliative care today has taken on a new and expanded meaning. With the introduction of a new medical field of expertise devoted solely to palliative care, the term has come to mean much more than pain management.

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Who Receives Palliative Care? A common misconception is that only cancer patients receive palliative care. In fact, palliative care services are available to anyone regardless of cultural background, age, and gender.

Where is Palliative Care Offered? In a wide range of locations, including doctorsí offices, clinics, long-term care settings, and at home. Many medical institutions have begun to develop palliative care programs on site to augment their existing services.

If I Elect To Have Palliative Care, Do I Have to Give Up Treatment? Not at all. Some patients receive palliative care and continue to pursue other life-prolonging programs, including chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery.

What About My General Physician? As a key member of the palliative care team, your doctor coordinates services and actively participates in your care.

Is Palliative Care Widely Accepted? Medical organizations and professionals recognize palliative care as not only one of the newest disciplines in the health care field, but as a medical specialty. Professionals who specialize in palliative medicine receive special training and certification.

Many health care organizations have adopted the Precepts of Palliative Care, guidelines developed by Last Acts, a national coalition that highlights patient and caregiver concerns. Several organizations, such as the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, provide referrals to physicians who specialize in palliative care.

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© 2003, 2004, 2007 AARP. Reprinting by permission only.

Multimedia Features
Elinor Ginzler Getting the Facts About Palliative Care
Discover how a team of professionals can provide comfort at the end of life.
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