Palliative care

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on April 21, 2023.

When a patient and their family hears the term “palliative care,” they may confuse this recommendation with end-of-life care and think that hope for recovery is lost. But palliative care, intended to ease the patient's symptoms and improve quality of life, is quite different from end-of-life (hospice) care.

This confusion and stigma may create fear that sometimes results in patients turning down palliative care.

In fact, this confusion is so common that more than two-thirds of patients who have a serious illness and who could benefit from palliative care do not understand or consider it, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management.

Understanding how palliative care and hospice care differ may help remove unnecessary barriers between patients and treatment.

This overview will cover the basic facts about palliative care, including:

What is palliative care?

Palliative care is for people of any age and at any stage of a serious illness, such as cancer. Also called “comfort care,” “supportive care” or “symptom management,” this approach is not intended to directly treat cancer, but to help relieve symptoms and other issues associated with cancer and its treatment.

Just as the term “palliative” means to ease pain, palliative care is intended to help relieve symptoms, pain and stress by addressing the patient’s care needs. This approach enables patients and their families or caregivers to be a part of the care plan—helping to improve quality of life for those involved.

The palliative care treatment approach seeks to determine and address how the illness is affecting the patient as a whole person—mind, body and spirit. Palliative care may help manage issues related to these general areas:

  • Medical
  • Social
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual
  • Practical support

To help manage these issues, the palliative care team works closely with the patient’s cancer care team. Every patient’s team is different depending on needs, and it may be made up of a group of professionals with varied specialties, including:

  • Doctors
  • Nurses
  • Social workers
  • Nutritionists
  • Chaplains

Doctors may refer patients to palliative care or patients may ask their doctors for a referral. Once begun, this kind of comfort care may be provided in many settings:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing homes
  • Outpatient centers
  • Specialized clinics
  • At home

Palliative care vs. hospice

There are a few key differences that distinguish palliative care from hospice care.

Palliative care:

  • May be provided or started at any time
  • Is open to anyone with a serious illness
  • May be delivered at the same time as disease treatments
  • May continue when treatment is complete
  • May continue for as long as the patient and family wants

Hospice care:

  • Is open to patients whom doctors believe are likely to live six months or less
  • Is delivered when disease treatments are discontinued
  • May be delivered at a separate hospice facility or at home

Palliative care and hospice care are both:

  • Aimed at reducing stress of illness and care
  • Designed to provide relief from symptoms
  • Provided at the patient’s home, an assisted living facility, a nursing home or a hospital
  • Inclusive of spiritual care at the patient or family’s request

When should someone be offered palliative care?

Thanks to palliative care’s many benefits, the American Cancer Society recommends that all patients with advanced cancer be given the option of palliative care early in the course of their disease.

Palliative care is more appropriate when started early, especially as soon as possible after a diagnosis. Research also shows that palliative care benefits both patients and their families or caregivers.

Among its many benefits, palliative care may:

  • Improve mood
  • Help manage emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis and treatment regimen
  • Provide resources for financial, work and insurance issues
  • Provide pain and symptom control
  • Help control side effects of treatment
  • Reduce the number of trips to the hospital, ICU or ER
  • Aid patients and their families or caregivers in understanding the treatment plan
  • Improve quality of life for caregivers and families
  • Extend patient survival

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