The Goals of Medical Treatment and How They Affect You

You and your healthcare provider will want to determine one or more treatment goals— whether you want to avoid acquiring a disease or condition, are suffering from symptoms, have caught a cold or the flu, have developed diabetes or cancer, or have injured yourself in an accident or a fall. All of these require treatments.

Treatments fall into four categories, based on their potential outcomes:

  • Preventive
  • Curative
  • Disease management (including pain management)
  • Palliative

No matter which goal you choose, you'll want to consider the pros and cons of each treatment approach. What follows are descriptions for each of the treatment goals:

Preventive Treatment: Avoiding a Health Problem Before It Starts

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As the name implies, preventive treatment is intended to make sure you don't catch or acquire or otherwise suffer from symptoms, a condition or disease. Preventive care is also called prophylactic care. Some examples are:


We are given vaccines to prevent certain diseases that are particularly debilitating, often for a lifetime, or may cause death. Vaccines may be injected, inhaled or swallowed. Once the vaccine is given, the immune system creates antibodies to fend off any exposure to the disease later in life. Examples include childhood vaccines for diseases like measles or polio, vaccines against diseases like tetanus or the flu that are needed at any age, and vaccines used for specific diseases someone older might acquire, such as shingles.


With the advent of personalized medicine, and the ability to review one's genetic code, there are some instances of preventive treatments being used to fend off diseases that may result from someone's biological heritage. An example of this type of preventive care would be for a woman found to have the BRCA genes that may signify certain forms of female cancers. A woman found to have the BRCA gene might choose a preventive treatment like having a breast removed to prevent the development of cancer in that breast.

Preventive care may also be part of our everyday routine. We brush our teeth to prevent tooth decay. We eat certain foods and avoid others to keep cholesterol levels low, take vitamins and supplements to build strong bones, or drink orange juice to stave off colds. We wear helmets when we ride bicycles to prevent head injuries. We exercise to keep our hearts strong.

Prevention is important enough that the U.S. healthcare reform law (the Affordable Care Act), has built up the capability for patients to receive dozens of preventive screening tests at no cost.

If the situation is beyond prevention, then we may need one of the other forms of treatment.

Curative Treatment: Curing, Healing or Repairing

Prescription drug step therapy: Cost savings but also a hurdle for patients and doctors

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In the best of worlds, once we have been diagnosed with a disease or condition, we hope to return to 100% of our health. That goal requires a cure or total healing—curative treatment—and is possible for many health problems we experience. Some examples of curative treatments are:


Some medications are intended to destroy the root of the problem, such as antibiotics that kill bacteria, anti-fungal medicines that kill fungal infections, or antihistamines which help clear up a reaction to an allergen. These drugs may be applied, swallowed or injected into our bodies.


A surgical treatment attempts to repair a problem. For example, someone who has had his knee replaced isn't cured of knee problems, but now his new knee will make him feel cured. A child born with a cleft palate may have it repaired, but it isn't really cured and may be passed on genetically later in life. A bad cut through one's skin may require stitches. There may be a scar, but still, the cut was repaired and the skin has healed. These approaches are all considered curative.

Broken bones can heal completely (in effect are cured) when they are treated properly, too. Sometimes the bone needs to be set back into place. Metal pins or rods may be required to strengthen those healing bones. The body part where the broken bone is located may need to be immobilized for weeks or months while it heals.

Physical Therapy

For muscles and other parts that have been strained or damaged, physical therapy may help heal through exercise and movement.

Time is sometimes all your cure requires while your body heals itself. It's not proactive and requires patience, but may be all that is needed.

Curative treatments may be attempted, but sometimes they fail. Once a cure is determined to be impossible, then patients must learn to manage the problem that remains.

Disease Management: Maximizing Longevity and Quality of Life

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Many diseases and conditions cannot be cured by existing medical treatments. When a medical problem can't be cured or healed, then the goal is to manage it to make sure both the patient's longevity and quality of life are maximized by managing the problem.

Many of the diseases and conditions that must be managed are considered chronic, which means they last a long time (more than three months, or even throughout the rest of one's life) or they recur over and over again throughout one's lifetime.

Diabetes is one example of a disease that is managed. When patients manage their diabetes by controlling blood sugar and insulin levels, they can live very long lives.

Examples of other diseases or conditions are chronic, and must be managed, often for the rest of a patient's lifetime, are allergies, asthma, heart disease, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), arthritis and hundreds of others. Some cancers, such as melanoma and prostate, are now considered manageable for some patients, too.

Some diseases that may become more difficult as they progress include multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease.

Certain diseases and conditions require a lifetime of management, beginning at birth or early in life. Muscular dystrophy, sickle cell, and autism are examples.

One important aspect of disease management is its goal of preventing another disease from developing. People with diabetes are at risk of developing heart, nerve or eye problems, for example. These additional problems are called comorbidities, meaning, they are developed in addition to, and sometimes as a result of, the original problem. Therefore one goal of disease management is preventive—preventing the extra problem from occurring.

Pain Management

relaxation massage

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While chronic pain itself isn't usually considered to be its own condition, it often accompanies other medical problems and requires its own form of management.

This is a difficult area of medical practice because often the source of pain is so difficult to determine. Even if it can be located, there are so many variables that would determine the best approaches for relieving or managing the pain. From drugs to surgeries to manipulation therapies like chiropractic, acupuncture, or massage, to biofeedback, to psychological approaches, pain management is unique enough to deserve its own mention.

Some forms of pain management fall under the categories of either curative or palliative care.

Palliative Care for Comfort and Relief

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Palliative care is provided to patients who have severe, debilitating, and/or life-ending diseases. Its goal is to relieve symptoms such as pain and make a patient comfortable, with little or no attempt to cure or manage the disease or condition that causes the discomfort. It is the approach to care for people who are terminally ill.

When delivered successfully, palliative care can relieve suffering for both the patient and the patient's loved ones.

Palliative care can also be used for patients who suffer from side effects from other treatments. For example, a cancer patient who suffers from nausea after a chemo treatment may be given medicine that will relieve his nausea. Such treatment is considered palliative.

Refusing Treatment and Choosing Death

An elderly man in a hospital bed.

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Some patients, when they realize that none of these goals provide them with relief from their pain and suffering, may choose the ultimate in patient empowerment—the right to die, or death with dignity.

For those who wish to consider it, this is a choice patients need to be aware of. The key is to become as informed as possible, to ask every question, and to learn everything that can be learned. 

Here is some information on the pros and cons, the legality of death with dignity, how your religious beliefs might help you decide, and a variety of resources to help you become informed.

Empowered patients understand the different goals of treatment and take them into account as they work in partnership with their healthcare provider or a shared decision-making expert to make treatment or end-of-life decisions.

11 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.