When a loved one lives with a severe or life-threatening illness, it impacts their quality of life, their family and friends, and caregivers. Cancer, chronic lung disease, heart disease, and dementia are just some of the conditions that they must manage.
Getting through each day presents multiple challenges for care recipients and their caregivers. Performing daily tasks, managing symptoms, and administering medications are often a struggle, and needs continually change as an illness evolves.
Palliative care offers help for seriously ill individuals and those who care for them. This guide explains more about palliative care and its benefits.
What is Palliative Care?
Palliative care helps those who are seriously ill and their families manage symptoms and stress that occur with a life-threatening illness. A specially-trained palliative team assesses a care recipient’s pain and symptom management, identifies patient and family goals and preferences, and works to achieve those, according to the National Coalition for Hospice and Palliative Care (NCHPC).
Professionals who make up a palliative team include physicians, nurses, paramedics, pharmacists, physiotherapists, volunteers, and more, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The primary goal of this coordinated care approach is to improve the quality of life for patients and their families as they navigate the daily trials and uncertainty that life-threatening illness brings. Specifically, palliative care “attends to the physical, functional, psychological, practical, and spiritual consequences of a serious illness,” according to the NCHPC.
Who Can Benefit from Palliative Care?
Anyone who is living with a severe or life-threatening illness, their families, and caregivers can benefit from palliative care. Though many chronic illnesses happen later in life, patients of all ages can receive palliative care at any stage of their condition. Palliative teams deliver care in various settings, including at home, a physician’s office, a hospital or treatment center, or a long-term care facility.
How is Palliative Care Different than Hospice?
Palliative and hospice care are not the same thing. Palliative care recipients may receive medical treatments and curative efforts for their serious illnesses, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Palliative care also helps patients and their families explore treatment options and provides assistance and tips for relieving stress and discomfort.
By comparison, hospice care “focuses on the care, comfort, and quality of life of a person with a serious illness who is approaching the end of life,” according to the NIA.
If medical treatments stop working or a patient chooses not to continue treatment for a serious illness, an individual may decide to start hospice care. If a doctor deems that a terminally ill patient has six months or less to live, they can begin hospice care, notes the NIA.
The hospice team supports the patient during hospice care, and their family and curative efforts stop.
Palliative Care Hurdles
Managing a severe or life-threatening illness can be difficult for care recipients, their supporters, and caregivers. About 56.8 million people need palliative care each year. Unfortunately, only about 14% of them receive it, according to the WHO.
Numerous hurdles to widespread palliative care access include:
- Most of those needing palliative care live in low-and-middle-income countries, with almost half of those living in Africa.
- National health systems and policies don’t include palliative care at all.
- Palliative care training for health professionals is often limited or doesn’t exist.
- Opioid access for pain and suffering relief “is inadequate and fails to meet international conventions on access to essential medicines.”
Palliative Care Benefits
One of the most significant palliative care benefits is the support it provides to alleviate the stress individuals experience while living with a serious illness.
Also, having a team care approach from palliative professionals within multiple health disciplines allows for different perspectives and suggestions to enhance a patient’s care, offer treatment options, and work toward achieving individual and family goals.
The WHO notes the following additional benefits:
- Receiving palliative care early in a serious illness reduces unnecessary hospital admissions and the use of health services.
- Palliative care improves the quality of life of patients and their families as they face a life-threatening illness.
- Palliative support also improves the quality of life for caregivers.
Individuals and families dealing with a severe illness can discuss whether palliative care is appropriate for them with their doctor or team of healthcare professionals.
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