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Palliative care is the comprehensive approach to treating serious illness (meaning illness or clinical state that has a higher chance than usual in resulting in death) that focuses on the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of the patient. The goal is to prevent and decrease significant discomfort while supporting the best quality of life for a patient as defined by the patient. These discussions and decisions can include whether or not the patient chooses to continue curative, aggressive medical care.
Palliative care is a resource for anyone living with a serious illness at any stage. It is meant to guide a person to provide information about specific services available to patients, surfacing patient priorities, and guidance in making important choices around their care. Though helpful at any stage of illness, palliative care is most helpful soon after a person is diagnosed with a serious illness.
A palliative care team may be comprised of various different palliative care specialists such as doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, nutritionists, counsellors, social workers, clergy. Palliative care may be provided in hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient palliative care centers or clinics, or at home. Importantly – engaging a palliative care team is similar to other specialists like oncology or cardiology. It does not mean that you’re no longer eligible to receive care by your previous specialists and providers.
Hospice is the holistic approach to caring for a person with advanced stages of a terminal illness approaching end of life and during the dying process. Holistic care includes the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs and how they all interact impacting the needs and wishes of the patient. Importantly, hospice services also provide support for family and caregivers.
Hospice is different than palliative care because it primarily focuses on planning for the end of life. Hospice care goals are individualized and include comfort and quality of life as defined by the patient.
There is a misconception of hospice that it is only appropriate at the very end of life. Though hospice can be very appropriate at that time, it is most beneficial to the patient and family months before the patient is expected to pass away. Hospice services are available to patients with a life expectancy of six months or less and can continue beyond based on clinical criteria. Many patients will start with palliative care and transition to hospice services as their serious illness progresses and care needs increase.