The word “palliative,” technically, means “relieving pain or alleviating a problem without dealing with the underlying cause,” according to one dictionary. That definition suggests that palliative health care might be short sighted or superficial.
Thinking Beyond Illness
Far from it. The World Health Organization defines palliative care as, “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”
Palliative care recognizes that issues like depression, anxiety, isolation, and inactivity can play a significant role in patient health and recovery. These are not issues that medical providers traditionally address.
A recent study of 350 patients newly diagnosed with lung cancer found that “early implementation of palliative care can improve quality of life, mood, and coping,” after 24 weeks of care. The results are based on patients self-reporting of overall health and well-being.
It’s not just for people with terminal illnesses. Another recent study shows that palliative care can improve outcomes for those undergoing recovery therapy. A study of stem cell transplant patients found that “At 3 months post transplant, the intervention still led to an increase in quality of life, and it was statistically significant,” Dr. El-Jawahri told attendees at the 2016 Palliative Care in Oncology Symposium.” This is a relatively brief intervention that led to a remarkably sustained improvement in depression and posttraumatic stress three months later, after transplantation.”
It Can Be for Anyone
Dr. Rebecca Brown, a palliative care doctor in North Carolina, said, “Palliative medicine is care that relieves suffering and improves quality of life for people of any age and at any stage in a serious illness whether that illness is curable, chronic or life-threatening.”
“The goal of the practice of palliative care is to help people with serious illnesses feel better,” says Dr. Brown. “It prevents or treats symptoms and side effects of disease and treatment. Attention is also given to emotional, social, practical, and spiritual problems that come with illness, and hopefully, an improved quality of life can be achieved.”
Palliative care recognizes that serious illnesses cause more than just physical health problems. The uncertainty that a diagnosis brings to patients and their families can exacerbate a patient’s physical condition as well as unnecessarily impair quality of life for both patients and caregivers. It is part of a wider effort to shift healthcare from a disease-focused model to a patient-focused model.
Doctors Trained to Address Quality of Life
Not every doctor is a palliative care doctor. Palliative doctors have special training and expertise in pain management and symptom control and specialize in helping patients and their families cope with the many burdens of a serious illness, from the side effects of a medical treatment to caregiver stress to fears about the future. Palliative care is available for loved ones and caregivers as well as patients. Palliative doctors can assist with difficult medical decisions, helping patients weigh the pros and cons of various treatments.
Many private insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs) offer palliative care benefits. Medicare plan (Part B) offers some palliative care benefits. Medicaid coverage of palliative care for people of limited incomes varies by state.