A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Palliative care: 4 things to know

Senior woman and young woman enjoying a cup of tea and reading a book - What is palliative care?

The goal of palliative care is to make people comfortable while maintaining their ability to function.

Palliative care focuses on managing symptoms, limiting discomfort and helping people live as well as they can as they approach the end of life.

“It’s about making the time people have left quality time and helping them live as comfortably as they can,” said Dr. David Schifeling, a palliative care physician at Marshfield Clinic.

Hospice vs. palliative care: What’s the difference?

Dr. Schifeling described hospice care as under the umbrella of palliative care.

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Both palliative care and hospice care provide comfort. But palliative care can begin at diagnosis, and at the same time as treatment. Hospice care begins after treatment of the disease is stopped and when it is clear the person is not going to survive the illness.”

Hospice is a defined Medicare benefit with a structured program of palliative care for those with a prognosis of six months or less, Dr. Schifeling said.

Where is care provided?

Palliative care can be provided in multiple settings, including a person’s home, a nursing home, an assisted living facility or a hospital. When providing palliative care, Dr. Schifeling helps patients manage pain, nausea and other symptoms related to their illness.

Managing pain

Dr. Schifeling said he did not think palliative care can make the end of life entirely pain free, but his goal is to make people as comfortable as possible while still being able to function. Opioid pain medications are often the foundation of pain control for palliative care patients.  However, massage therapy, aromatherapy and other pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical approaches also are used to achieve pain relief.

A team approach to care

Palliative care also provides emotional support for patients and their families. In addition to physicians, social workers, spiritual counselors, nurses, pharmacists and nutritionists also may be part of the palliative care team.

Dr. Schifeling added that it is important people consider what makes life worth living and to discuss these thoughts with their family and loved ones. Planning ahead for end-of-life situations can make those times more peaceful, comfortable and less stressful for the patient and their family. Filling out an advance directive is an important part of being ready for a medical situation where you may be unable to fully communicate your wishes for care.

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