Date Updated: 08/15/2017


Palliative care is specialized medical care that focuses on providing patients relief from pain and other symptoms of a serious illness, no matter the diagnosis or stage of disease. Palliative care teams aim to improve the quality of life for both patients and their families. This form of care is offered alongside curative or other treatments you may be receiving.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses and other specially trained people. They work with you, your family and your other doctors to provide an extra layer of support that complements your ongoing care.

Why it's done

Palliative care may be offered to people of any age who have a serious or life-threatening illness. It can help adults and children living with illnesses such as:

  • Cancer
  • Blood and bone marrow disorders requiring stem cell transplant
  • Heart disease
  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Dementia
  • End-stage liver disease
  • Kidney failure
  • Lung disease
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Stroke

Symptoms that may be improved by palliative care include:

  • Pain
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Depression or sadness
  • Constipation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Anorexia
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping

How you prepare

Here's some information to help you get ready for your first consultation appointment.

  • Bring a list of symptoms you're experiencing. Note specifically what makes the symptoms better or worse and whether they affect your ability to go about your daily activities.
  • Bring a list of medications and supplements you use.
  • Consider bringing a family member or friend with you to the appointment.
  • Bring any advance directives and living wills you've completed.

What you can expect

Palliative care is an approach to care that you may want to access at any stage of a serious illness. It helps you manage symptoms and address concerns that matter most to you. You may consider palliative care when you have questions about:

  • What to expect with your care plan and how to tailor it to what matters most to you
  • What programs and resources are available to support you throughout your illness
  • Your treatment options and their pros and cons
  • Making decisions in line with your personal values and goals

Your first meeting may take place while you're in the hospital or in an outpatient clinic. Research indicates that early use of palliative care services can improve the quality of life for patients with serious illness, decrease depression and anxiety, increase patient and family satisfaction with care, and, in some cases, even extend survival.

During the consultation

Your palliative care team will talk with you about your symptoms, current treatments, and how this illness is affecting you and your family. You and your palliative care team make a plan to prevent and ease suffering and improve your daily life. This plan will be carried out in coordination with your primary care team in a way that works well with any other treatment you're receiving.

After the consultation

Your palliative care plan is designed to fit your life and needs. It may include elements such as:

  • Symptom management. Your palliative care plan will include steps to address your symptoms and improve your comfort and well-being. The care team will answer questions you may have, such as whether your pain medicines will affect treatments you're receiving from your primary care doctor.
  • Support and advice. Palliative care services include support for the many difficult situations and decisions you and your family make when you're facing a serious illness or approaching the end of life.

    You and your family may talk with a palliative care social worker, chaplain or other team member about stress, spiritual questions, financial concerns or how your family will cope if a loved one dies. The palliative care specialists may offer guidance or connect you with community resources.

  • Care techniques that improve your comfort and sense of well-being. These may include breathing techniques, healing touch, visualization or simply listening to music with headphones.
  • Referrals. Your palliative care clinician may refer you to other doctors: for example, specialists in psychiatry, pain medicine or integrative medicine.
  • Advance care planning. A palliative care team member can talk with you about goals and wishes for your care. This information could then be used to help you develop a living will, advance directive and a health care power of attorney.

Your palliative care team collaborates with your regular doctors to ensure your care is well-coordinated.

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