What Is Palliative Care?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Palliative care is a treatment approach is that is sometimes confused with hospice care. While it may be involved in hospice care, its scope is far broader, Palliative care is ultimately aimed at relieving the symptoms associated with a serious illness while improving the person's quality of life—whether that person is at the end of their life or not.

Nurse holding the hands of an older patient

LPETTET / Getty Images

Palliative care involves a specialized team of health and allied professionals who work together to address an individual's physical, emotional, practical, and spiritual needs.

This article explores the scope of care involved in palliative care services 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 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. Board certification for doctors in palliative care is through the American Board of Medical Specialities (ABMS), while nurses and nurse practitioners can get certification 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.

Treatment

Palliative care is intended to improve a person's quality of life, and that includes more than just their physical concerns. Palliative care is a holistic approach intended to ease emotional, social, practical, and spiritual problems well.

These may include:

  • 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 improves a person's quality of life (as well as that of their family) but may also extend a person's life.

According to a review published in the Journal of Family Practice, palliative care used in people with metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer increased survival times by an average of 24% compared to those who received standard care.

Recap

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 congestive heart failure (CHF), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), stroke, HIV/AIDS, advanced kidney disease, advanced liver disease, and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease. Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

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: Criteria may include multiple hospitalizations, declining ability to take care of oneself, severe weight loss, the use of tube feeding in severely ill people, difficult-to-control symptoms, and extreme patient or caregiver distress.
  • Intensive care unit (ICU) criteria: 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 (such as dementia).
  • Emergency room (ER) criteria: 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: Criteria may include a poor performance status (PS), failure of first-line or second-line chemotherapy, painful bone metastases, 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.

Recap

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.

Summary

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—and not just cancer.

A Word From Verywell

If your doctor recommends palliative care, this does not mean that you or your loved one are at end of your 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 limitations on 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.

Was this page helpful?
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?. Updated May 17, 2017.

  2. Center to Advance Palliative Care. For clinicians. Updated 2021.

  3. MedlinePlus. What is palliative care? Updated September 1, 2021.

  4. American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. ABMS subspecialty certification in hospice and palliative medicine. Updated 2020.

  5. Rowland K, Schumann SA. PURLs. Palliative care: earlier is betterJ Fam Pract. 2010;59(12):695-698.

  6. MedicareAdvantage.com. Does Medicare cover palliative care? Updated February 18, 2021.