What is Palliative Care?

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  • Written By: Paulla Estes
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2019
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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.


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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Post 3

Many international organizations donate and run programs for health care in countries struck with poverty or conflict. One criticism of such programs is how the money is spent. For example, if there is a limited amount of funding to spend on AIDS treatments in a country, some experts argue that it should be used for prevention or treating the disease rather than providing palliative care.

Although providing palliative care to people is important and humanistic too, I also understand experts' position on this. Because if the money can be used for condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS, I think that's a better use of it than providing comfort for AIDS patients who have neared the end of their life.

I hope one day, health care will be so abundant and sufficient across the world that we won't have to make decisions like this.

Post 2

@bear78-- Actually, I think that the care provided for patients after surgery and treatment are considered to be palliative care as well. Palliative care is actually a fairly flexible term and different types of care are in this category. For example, someone who is under care after surgery, someone who is under care for chronic pain and someone who is under care for a terminal illness are all receiving palliative care. So there is no rule that only people who have neared the end of their life can get this type of care.

Post 1

I always thought that palliative care was the brief, temporary care provided to someone after surgery or other type of treatment. I did not realize that this may not be temporary but long term.

Does anyone know any statistics about how many people receive palliative care in the US? It seems like it's not as utilized as it should be.

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