Palliative care (pronounced PAL-lee-uh-tiv) is derived from the Latin word palliare meaning "to cloak." Palliation is defined as "relieving or soothing symptoms of a disease or disorder." Sometimes when people hear the words palliative care they might picture someone who has no chance of cure and is ready for hospice care. Most of my patients and families do not have an understanding of palliative care and their confusion is supported by a recent national survey that suggests nearly three-quarters of Americans do not know what the term palliative care means. So, what is palliative care?

Palliative care, as defined by Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC), is specialized medical care for people with serious illness. It is appropriate at any age and includes patients who are undergoing treatment for curable illnesses, patients living with chronic disease, as well as patients who are nearing the end of life. A palliative care team provides patients relief from symptoms, pain and stress of serious illness such as cancer, congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney failure, dementia and other chronic illnesses.

A team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other palliative care specialists work with patients and families along with their established doctors to provide multidimensional care. Frequently, I describe the palliative care team to my patients as "The Support Team -- helping with symptoms, communication and coordination of care." Other providers have described palliative care as "Pals for people with serious illness." The palliative care team spends time with patients and families, supports them through the course of the illness, and works together with a patient's primary care physician to provide quality of life.

Patient and family-centered care is the foundation of palliative care. Quality of life is uniquely defined by each patient and family. I tell my patients that their palliative care team will listen to their wishes and then guide them through the course of the illness. The team develops a care plan based on what patients and families tell them is important. We interface the care plan with the disease process to assure that the patient's and family's goals and values are met.

Palliative care focus is to improve quality of life for patients and families. The goal is to help alleviate suffering. Relief from physical suffering can be achieved by symptom management induced by pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, constipation, nausea, difficulty sleeping and depression. Relief from emotional and spiritual suffering can be calmed by offering a support system to help patients and families cope, improved communication between healthcare providers, better understanding of complex treatment options, help in navigating the healthcare system, and guidance with advance life care planning.

No matter what definition you find in the dictionary or web site describing palliative care, it is important to remember that palliative care helps patients and families achieve quality of life as they define it.

This article was published as part of the Daily Local News Medical Column series which appears every Monday. It has been reprinted by permission of the Daily Local News.

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