Palliative Care and Hospice What is the difference?

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Medical language is almost a separate form of English. In a world of growing technology and informational systems, an entire conversation can occur that is loaded with acronyms and terms which are totally confusing. In the doctor’s’ office or emergency room, professional people walk in and out telling you something is happening to you and what they will do to fix it. Terms get thrown around so quickly that, as a layperson, you can’t follow the conversation or make decisions. An example is that palliative care and hospice are not synonymous. These are different types of treatment and, while they can be used simultaneously, they may be used at very different times in life.

Palliative care improves the quality of life through prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification, assessment and treatment of pain, physical, psychosocial and emotional problems. It is that part of your medical care aimed at controlling pain and various medical symptoms day to day. It includes incorporating your psychosocial and spiritual needs and making sure that your care includes supportive services. Treating unrecognized depression often leads to less perception of pain and may be an integral part of successful pain management. The goal of palliative care is comfort. It can come at any stage of life, not just at the end.

Hospice care is given at the end of life. The treatment is a shift in medical care to support someone who is terminally ill and may have palliative care at the same time. It is with recognition that the care is not going to cure the illness at hand but will allow it to run its course in the most comfortable and peaceful way possible. The end of life does not need to be consumed by pain, anxiety and suffering. This is a time when some routine medications may be discontinued because they no longer have benefit and may lead to more suffering with unwanted side effects. However, other medications will be continued if they relieve symptoms and provide comfort.

The decision to accept hospice care must be made with your physician within the understanding that the treatments being done to prolong your life are causing suffering without true benefit. Hospice care is not about making death come sooner. It is not a treatment to end your life; it is an acceptance and a choice that a patient and their family make about medical treatments that prolong a life of terminal illness and suffering.

Misunderstanding these two types of medical treatment happens easily. Google palliative care and you will find that it is primarily mentioned in the context of end-of-life treatment. This is not its only use. People suffer from chronic pain syndromes and live many years with suffering because they are afraid to ask about palliative care, possibly because of misconceptions. Even if you are older, pain management is not an indication that you are terminal. The misconceptions about hospice are equally difficult to move past, but the treatment philosophy is one of kindness and the goal is to ease suffering. If you are confused, ask your doctor. Find out if either of these treatment modalities is right for you or a loved one. No one should suffer needlessly and there are ways to help manage every situation.

The Farmington Valley VNA is here for you with care for the recently discharged or sick, rehabilitative care, palliative and hospice care.