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What is Palliative Care?

A woman receiving palliative care.
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  • Written By: Paulla Estes
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 15 March 2014
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Palliative care consists of providing pain relief to a person with a serious or life-threatening illness. The focus is symptom and pain management, as well as mental and emotional health, and assistance with spiritual needs. It does not focus on death, but rather, compassionate quality-of-life for the living. In addition, it provides care and support for the family and loved ones of the patient receiving treatment.

This type of care is usually viewed as therapy or action designed to relieve rather than cure painful or debilitating symptoms caused by a terminal illness or its treatment. For instance, although there are treatments for cancer and AIDS which may prolong life or possibly even cure the patient, palliative care gives patients relief from the pain, nausea, and other side effects caused either by the treatment or by the disease itself. In the not so distant past, health care professionals were primarily focused on healing the disease, regardless of the cost to the patient. Only in the last century have we found effective anesthesia and pain killers that give patients some relief from the agony of trauma, surgery, and terminal illness.

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The term comes from the Latin palliatus, which means "cloaked." The idea is that palliative care does not heal or treat, but rather, cloaks or covers up the pain and other unpleasant side-effects of disease and terminal illness. The root word, palliate, actually means "to alleviate without curing." This is not to say that palliative care and healing are completely exclusive; rather, the goal is relief, not cure.

Palliative care has been very useful in abating the controversy of voluntary physician-assisted suicide. It may be the difference between a gentle, peaceful step from life into death and one in which the patient suffers so much and for so long that euthanasia seems to be the only humane alternative.

The care may begin in a hospital, hospice, or home setting. While palliative care is in mainstream medical use, as with all medical issues, patients may have to speak up for themselves or have an advocate to speak on their behalf in order to receive it. It is available and it can improve a patient's quality of life.

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