July 18, 2018
Health & Fitness
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Palliative Care? But I’m Not Dying!

Elyzabeth Marcussen
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August 23, 2017

Somewhere along the way, the term “palliative care” picked up a scary reputation. Should a medical professional bring it up as a treatment option, many people will think it a death sentence.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Palliative care is all about living.

The field is relatively new; the American Board of Medical Specialties has recognized hospice and palliative medicine as a medical specialty only since 2006. Both are patient-centered and focused on quality of life for those experiencing complex advanced illness. Both seek to anticipate, prevent and treat suffering, including pain and other symptoms of illness.

Hospice care is a form of palliative care, just at a different level. The key difference is you can still receive curative treatment and you do not have to have a terminal diagnosis to receive palliative care. However, to receive hospice care, a physician has to certify that a cure is not possible and that the disease is terminal, with a prognosis of six months or less if the disease runs its normal course.

Palliative and hospice care employ a biopsychosocial approach, which considers biological, psychological and social factors and how they interact to determine the best course of treatment. So, a palliative care team addresses not just the physical, but also intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual needs of patients and families, making sure they have access to all the information about the disease progression and the choices ahead.

With so many factors to consider, the patient works with a team of professionals who specialize in palliative care, a group that can include but is not limited to a physician, a nurse practitioner, a nurse and a social worker. And as patients can receive palliative care in conjunction with other treatments or therapies, that team grows to include other specialists, such as an oncologist or dietician.

A hospice patient also receives palliative care, but the hospice team’s focus shifts to helping the patient make the most of the time he or she has left to spend with family and friends. Supporting the family members becomes even more important. If not already part of the team, a chaplain and volunteers join in the mission of helping patients be as free of pain and troublesome symptoms as possible. Grief support begins even before the patient dies, to help the patient and the family prepare for this stage of life.

The most important thing to remember is that being referred to palliative care does not necessarily mean you are facing imminent death. And it is not just cancer patients who benefit. People with complex advanced illnesses such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and sickle cell disease can often live longer because the focus is on not just the disease but also the wellbeing of the whole person.

If someone suggests that you consider palliative care, do not panic and assume the worst. It can be the first step to better days.

Hospice of the Chesapeake is a nonprofit organization that is caring for life throughout the journey with illness and loss in Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties. Its affiliated programs include Chesapeake Palliative Medicine, which offers specialized care, compassion and encouragement for wherever you are on your journey with complex advanced illness. For details, visit www.hospicechesapeake.org or call 410-987-2003.

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