What is Palliative Care?

Palliative care, a board-certified medical specialty since 2006 in the US, has been around for centuries. Most people have experienced palliative medicine, which focuses on comfort care, symptom management and pain relief.

If you break a bone, the doctor treats it by immobilizing it with a cast and prescribing painkillers to make you comfortable. The cast is curative, while the medications are palliative: they improve the quality of your life while you and your physician address the broken bone.

A person hands an apple to a woman, who is seated on a sofa

To palliate is “to make a disease or its symptoms less severe or unpleasant without removing the cause.”

Generally, palliative care is provided within the context of serious illness: chronic, progressive pulmonary disorders; renal disease; chronic heart failure; HIV/AIDS; progressive neurological conditions; cancer, etc. It supports a patient’s physical, emotional and psychosocial needs, providing comfort and improving quality of life.

An example: An oncologist who prescribes chemotherapy to treat cancer will also address nausea, depression and anxiety by prescribing an anti-anxiety drug, recommending a therapist or arranging for pet visits. A social worker or chaplain will provide family support, as well. All of these coping mechanisms are considered palliative: they improve the quality of a patient's life while the patient and physician address the cancer.

What Is the History of Palliative Care?

Palliative care grew out of the hospice movement. Today 1,700 hospitals with 50 or more beds offer a palliative specialist or team. They work with a patient’s healthcare team and specialists to address the physical, psychological, social or spiritual distress of serious illness and its treatment.

Call VITAS to learn more about hospice and palliative care options.

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