You may have heard some buzz about palliative medicine lately, but there’s still a lot of confusion about what this medical specialty does and who they serve. Palliative medicine physicians and their teams help patients and their families navigate a difficult illness.
Although this specialty has been around since the 1990s, COVID-19 has brought it into the limelight. “Palliative” comes from the word “palliate,” which means to relieve or lessen — essentially to make feel better. The focus of a palliative care team is to provide support and improve quality of life to patients dealing with serious illness. Here are the five most common myths and misconceptions about this relatively young medical specialty.
MYTH #1: Palliative medicine is only for people who are terminally ill.
Not so. Any patient with a serious illness who is experiencing symptoms should get palliative care, even if their disease is expected to be cured. Serious illness often leads to physical, emotional, social and spiritual problems that require treatment beyond what the primary medical team can provide. People with complex medical problems such as heart failure, kidney disease, cancer or dementia should get palliative care.
Palliative medicine is meant to support all patients with serious illness as they navigate through medical care. The goal is for a palliative care physician is to work alongside the patient’s primary doctors to manage the symptoms of their illness (or side effects of their treatment), such as pain, shortness of breath, trouble sleeping, nausea and/or anxiety that may interfere with their day-to-day life.
MYTH #2: Being told you or your loved one should see a palliative medicine specialist means the doctors are “giving up.”
It can be very frightening to be told by your doctor that you would benefit from seeing the palliative medicine team when there are misconceptions about the purpose of the visit. Some people believe this is how their doctor is letting them know that they are dying or there is “nothing left to do.” The truth is, that doctors refer their patients to palliative medicine because they know this service will help them cope with illness and tolerate treatments better. The American Cancer Society, for example, recommends that palliative care be offered as soon as possible following diagnosis, provided at the same time as cancer treatment, and continued after treatment is complete. A referral to palliative care does not mean a doctor has given up on treating a patient; it means that they want their patient to have all the support available to help them and their caregivers through illness.
MYTH #3. Palliative medicine is the same thing as hospice.
No, they’re not the same thing. Palliative care can be provided to patients at any stage of the journey through an illness, regardless of their prognosis. Patients receiving palliative care are often actively receiving treatment for their illness. The goal of the palliative medicine team is to address the patient holistically and provide support as they cope with symptoms, pain and stressful life changes. By contrast, hospice care is a service provided most often in the home, to patients at the end-stage of incurable illness. These patients are no longer actively treating their disease but continue to receive only the therapies and medications that will add to their comfort and quality of life. The goal of hospice care is to provide comfort and support.
MYTH #4: You can’t see other doctors once you start seeing a palliative medicine doctor.
A palliative medicine doctor can be one of many specialists on a patient’s team. Patients will typically have an initial meeting to address their specific needs and concerns and will continue to follow up with their palliative medicine team in addition to other providers. There is no restriction on seeing other doctors; in fact, the palliative medicine doctor will communicate regularly with other physicians on the patient’s team. Palliative specialists tend to have more time to spend with their patients and may have important insights to share with other physicians about a patient’s individual goals and wishes for their care. Your palliative care physician can serve as an advocate when it comes to making sure the whole care team is on the same page. Along those lines, palliative medicine physicians are knowledgeable about advanced care planning, and can assist patients and their families in completing a living will and health care power of attorney document.
MYTH #5: Palliative medicine doctors just prescribe pain medicines.
Although pain management may be an important aspect of a patient’s experience with their palliative care physician, there is much more to it than that. Palliative care addresses the experience of illness on the whole person with a focus on relieving symptoms, pain and stress. It gives patients options and allows them and their caregivers to take part in planning their care. The professionals who make up the palliative care team can help look for and manage mental, physical, emotional, social and spiritual issues with patients.
Benefits of Palliative Medicine
Research has proven the positive impact of palliative care on the well-being of patients and their families or caregivers. Studies shows that patients who have palliative care visits while in the hospital spend less time in intensive care units and are less likely to visit the emergency room or be re-admitted to the hospital after they go home. Studies have also shown that people with chronic illnesses, like cancer, who get palliative care have less severe symptoms. They have better quality of life, less pain, less shortness of breath, less depression and less nausea. Cancer patients receiving palliative care have been shows in studies to have better emotional health. This may be because their medical care tends to better align with their values, goals and preferences. Their families also feel more satisfied with the patient's care. There is so much to gain from having a palliative medicine team working with patients as they navigate life with serious illness.
Learn more about Palliative Care at Ochsner Health.