How these treatments can help your loved one live more comfortably.
If your mom has cancer, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or some other type of serious, chronic and possibly life-threatening illness, her doctor may suggest palliative care. If so, don’t panic. It doesn’t mean she’s dying. It means her doctor knows about a solution to reduce pain, ease stress and help her enjoy better quality of life.
1. What is palliative care?
“Palliative care provides extra support for patients and their families,” says Charles F. von Gunten, MD, a palliative medicine and hospice care specialist for OhioHealth, a Columbus-based health system that serves 47 Ohio counties. “It can be combined with standard treatment approaches to help people feel better and live longer.”
If your loved one has cancer, for example, her oncologist may recommend chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The doctor may also suggest palliative care for symptom management. A palliative medicine specialist may prescribe medication for nausea and other chemotherapy side effects. A social worker from the palliative care team may help her complete an advanced directive. A spiritual counselor may help her work through bigger questions. Meanwhile, she continues to receive chemotherapy and radiation.
2. Is palliative care the same as hospice care?
Don’t confuse palliative care with hospice care. Hospice care provides relief to patients at the end of life. Hospice care starts after treatment is stopped and it’s clear the patient won’t survive. Palliative care can start at diagnosis and continues through treatment.
“Palliative care looks at the whole person,” says Dr. von Gunten. “Rather than treating a symptom or an isolated condition, it takes a broad look at a person’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs as a part of the family.”
3. Does my loved one need palliative care?
If your parent or loved one faces a serious illness, he could benefit from palliative care. Dr. von Gunten says to ask your loved one if he has shortness of breath, uncontrolled pain, a change in appetite or other symptoms that come with advanced disease. Also, if they’re in and out of the hospital without improvement, it could be time to talk to their doctor about palliative care.
4. What’s involved in palliative care?
Palliative care treatment varies by hospital, and a growing number of hospitals provide the service. The Center to Advance Palliative Care reports that in 2015, 67 percent of hospitals with 50 or more beds offered palliative care teams.
During palliative care, a team of doctors, nurses and specialists stay in close communication with you and your family. They explain treatment options, discuss the pros and cons and consider your loved one’s personal goals. They coordinate care between doctors and help you navigate the increasingly complicated healthcare system.
A palliative care team may include the following specialists:
• Social worker
• Psychiatrist or psychologist
• Physical therapist
• Occupational therapist
5. What’s next?
If you think your parent or loved one would benefit from palliative care, talk to his or her primary care physician to discuss palliative care options.
“Instead of saying a condition comes with old age, ask if there’s a palliative care consultant that can help,” says Dr. von Gunten. “Research suggests how valuable it can be.”