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A palliative care specialist is a medical professional who improves the quality of life for people suffering extreme pain from both life-threatening and non-life-threatening illnesses. Such specialists also help patients, their families, and caregivers cope with emotional strain and prepare for difficult decisions that often accompany palliative care. Workers in this specialized field of medicine include doctors, physician's assistants, nurses, nurse practitioners, home care assistants, various types of therapists, counselors, social workers, and volunteers. A palliative care specialist typically works in homes, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, and hospices.
The term palliative means relieving without curing. In terms of medical care, it is often mistakenly associated only with pain, and palliative care is likewise frequently misinterpreted as pertaining only to the final stages of life often in a hospice. Those misconceptions can lead to inaccurate perceptions of a palliative care specialist.
The role of a palliative care specialist certainly does involve relieving pain and enhancing the quality of life for terminal patients in hospices, but it extends well beyond that into a holistic approach to the entire situation. Members of palliative care teams typically also help alleviate other medical conditions that often accompany severe illness, such as nausea, appetite loss, fatigue, breathing difficulties, anxiety, and depression. They also frequently offer the support system family members typically need in stressful situations. They often can further provide advice on how to make effective health care decisions, evaluate options, and find the best resources to deal with the legal and financial issues that families with members needing palliative care typically require.
In some cases, palliative care helps patients recover from illnesses. When it does not and hospice care is the only option left, the work of the palliative care specialist takes on special significance. Members of a palliative care team generally carry the primary responsibility for ensuring terminal patients live out the final days in comfort and with dignity. They often become the primary sources of information on topics that can be difficult to discuss like a durable power of attorney for health care, consideration of a living will, and sources for grief or bereavement counseling.
As medical science continues to help people live longer and extend the lives of patients with terminal diseases, some palliative care experts see unanswered questions about how to fulfill future needs for the specialty as an urgent world health care issue. The World Healthcare Organization recently joined a panel of medical experts to estimate that approximately 30 million of the estimated 60 million people who die every year could benefit significantly from palliative care if they received it early enough. The group stated that the largest groups of people who could be helped were the 6 million people who die every year from cancer and another 3 million who annually succumb to AIDS.