Hospice and palliative care are terms often mistakenly used interchangeably. People tend to associate them both with the end of life. But that’s not always the case. Despite what many people may think, these two types of care aren’t synonymous.
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“People misconstrue the two all the time,” says palliative care specialist Krista Dobbie, MD. “We are here to help patients emotionally, spiritually and physically with their disease process. Hospice is only a small portion of what we do.”
Palliative care alongside curative care
Palliative care got its start as a support system for those with cancer. Today, it has broadened into other diseases. It’s often delivered alongside other medical treatments, with a focus on relieving symptoms, easing pain and improving quality of life.
“When you’re receiving chemotherapy, for instance, you may come to me for help with your nausea and vomiting or your pain management,” says Dr. Dobbie. “I always say, ‘Tell me about your pain. Are you sleeping? Are you feeling fatigued? Emotionally, how are you holding up?’”
Not always end of life
Experts say that it’s only when a person is expected to live six months or less that his or her palliative care receives the label — and Medicare coverage — of hospice care. However, people can live in hospice for years and, because of the services provided, they can have a better quality of life. Hospice care provides patients and their families with nursing support at home, services to support the family emotionally and coordination of care with physicians.
Better life, longer
Far from being a death sentence, palliative care can actually extend patients’ lives, says Dr. Dobbie.
In a 2010 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, patients with lung cancer who received palliative care had better quality of life scores and fewer symptoms of depression. Survival was not a metric the researchers set out to measure. Yet, incidentally, they found that people lived almost three months longer.
“Once people understand that we are here to help them have a good quality of life, they become palliative care’s biggest supporters,” Dr. Dobbie says. “When in doubt, meet with a palliative care specialist. More often than not, families are so glad they did.”