What Is Palliative Care?

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Palliative care is a form of medical care that is ultimately aimed at relieving the symptoms associated with a serious illness while improving a person’s quality of life. A specialized team of health and allied professionals work together to address an individual’s physical, emotional, practical, and spiritual needs.

Nurse holding the hands of an older patient

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Palliative care is often confused with hospice care, which is comfort care for patients who only have a few months or less to live. While palliative care may be given as someone nears death, it has a broader scope and may also be given at diagnosis, during treatment, and/or after treatment to help patients with chronic or life-threatening illness, such as cancer and HIV/AIDS.

This article explores the elements of palliative care along with the types of treatments that may be involved. It also details when palliative care is needed, including the criteria used by healthcare professionals and health insurers.

Scope of Care

The ultimate aim of palliative care is to improve a person’s quality of life when faced with a serious or life-threatening illness. It can begin at any time during an illness, last days or even years, and be provided along with curative treatments.

Palliative care is not restricted to people receiving end-of-life care. It can be offered to anyone whose illness is reducing their quality of life, impacting their ability to function normally, or placing an undue burden on family or caregivers.

The scope of palliative care may involve:

  • Providing relief from pain and/or symptoms of a disease
  • Coordinating care between medical and non-medical providers
  • Minimizing side effects from treatments
  • Addressing the emotional, spiritual, and social needs of the individual
  • Identifying and supporting the needs of the family or caregivers

Palliative care is based on the needs of the individual, not the individual’s diagnosis or prognosis (outlook).

Palliative Care Team

Palliative care is typically carried out by a team of professionals who can address multiple concerns. It may be offered by hospitals, home care agencies, cancer treatment centers, and long-term care facilities. The care team may include:

Palliative care is a specialized field of medicine. For doctors, board certification in palliative care is through the American Board of Medical Specialities (ABMS). Nurses and nurse practitioners can get certified through several credentialing organizations.

Ultimately, the most important member of the care team is you. Palliative care should be directed toward meeting your personal goals and needs. It is important to make your wishes known and to encourage your family and caregivers to do the same.


Improving someone’s quality of life involves tending to more than just their physical concerns. As such, palliative care is a holistic approach intended to ease emotional, social, practical, and spiritual challenges as well.

Palliative care treatment may be aimed at any of the following, as appropriate:

  • Physical problems, such as pain, sleeping problems, breathing difficulty, loss of appetite, constipation, and nausea or vomiting
  • Emotional or social problems, including depression, anxiety, family issues, caregiver burnout, and lack of support
  • Practical problems, including insurance, financial, legal, housing, or job-related issues
  • Spiritual issues, including hopelessness and a loss of faith

The benefits of palliative care are many. Palliative care may not only improve a person’s quality of life, as well as that of their family, but it may also help extend their life.

According to a review published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, people with advanced cancer receiving palliative care had survival times more than 30% longer than those who received only standard care. However, some other studies haven’t found a survival advantage.


Palliative care is typically administered by a team of medical and allied health professionals. It recognizes that people with serious illnesses not only have medical concerns to address but can benefit when their practical, emotional, and spiritual needs are met as well.

Criteria and Eligibility

Historically, palliative care was used in people with incurable cancer and was largely synonymous with hospice care. Over time, the definition has evolved and broadened. Today, palliative care can be applied to many serious or life-threatening conditions, whether terminal or non-terminal.

In addition to cancer, palliative care may be used in people with:

While the decision to pursue palliative care is largely an individual one, there are certain criteria health professionals use to assess the need for such care.

According to the Center to Advance Palliative Care, the criteria can vary based on who is assessing the patient.

Criteria categories include:

  • General clinical criteria: May include multiple hospitalizations, declining ability to take care of oneself, severe weight loss, a need for tube feeding in severely ill people, difficult-to-control symptoms, and extreme patient or caregiver distress
  • Intensive care unit (ICU) criteria: May include two more ICU admissions during the same hospitalization, multi-organ failure, prolonged ventilator use, and ICU admissions from nursing homes in people with multiple health concerns (e.g., dementia and heart failure)
  • Emergency room (ER) criteria: May include multiple prior hospitalizations for the same condition, long-term care patients with a do not resuscitate (DNR) order, and people previously enrolled in hospice or home health care
  • Oncology (cancer) criteria: May include a poor performance status (PS), failure of first-line or second-line chemotherapy, painful bone metastases (cancer spread), progressive brain metastases after radiation, and the need for interventional pain management

There may also be eligibility criteria for insurance coverage. Medicare, for example, only covers palliative care for certain conditions. Furthermore, while Medicare Part B covers certain palliative care services (like doctor’s fees), Medicare Part A benefits can only be applied to hospice care.


Palliative care can be applied to many terminal or non-terminal conditions. The criteria for care can vary by the medical condition, the person’s health status or hospitalization history, and other factors. Insurance companies may also have criteria for coverage.


Palliative care is aimed at relieving the symptoms and improving the quality of life of people with serious or life-threatening illnesses. It may be included as a part of hospice care, but it is not the same thing as hospice care. With palliative care, you can still receive care whether your condition is terminal or not.

Palliative care is often delivered by a team of providers, including medical and allied health professionals. The scope of care not only includes medical services like pain control and respiratory care, but may also address the person’s emotional, practical, and spiritual needs.

The criteria for palliative care services can vary by the medical condition, the health status of the individual, and other factors. But it is ultimately aimed at bringing comfort to people faced with severe illnesses of many types.

A Word From Verywell

If your doctor recommends palliative care, this does not necessarily mean that you or your loved one are at end of life. While palliative care may be a part of hospice care, it is not hospice care. The aim of palliative care is to make your and your family’s life better, irrespective of life expectancy or whether your condition is curable or incurable.

Furthermore, if you enroll in hospice care but later change your mind, you can continue to receive palliative care (although there may be certain insurance).

If you are unclear why palliative care has been recommended, speak with your doctor or seek a second opinion from a medical specialist certified in palliative and hospice care.

6 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.
  1. National Institute on Aging. What are palliative care and hospice care?.

  2. Center to Advance Palliative Care. For clinicians.

  3. MedlinePlus. What is palliative care?

  4. American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. ABMS subspecialty certification in hospice and palliative medicine.

  5. Hoerger M, Wayser GR, Schwing G, Suzuki A, Perry LM. Impact of interdisciplinary outpatient specialty palliative care on survival and quality of life in adults with advanced cancer: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Ann Behav Med. 2019;53(7):674-685. doi:10.1093/abm/kay077

  6. MedicareAdvantage.com. Does Medicare cover palliative care?

By Angela Morrow, RN
Angela Morrow, RN, BSN, CHPN, is a certified hospice and palliative care nurse.