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Palliative Care vs. Hospice: What’s the Difference?

by Linnea Crowther

Palliative care and hospice are both prescribed to provide comfort and relief to someone who is suffering from an illness or medical condition. But they’re not the same thing. 

Palliative care refers to treatments given to help someone with an illness or condition feel better physically and emotionally. It can be administered at the same time that doctors are trying to cure their illness or condition.

Hospice refers to the range of care given to someone when there’s no longer any hope of a cure, and the goal is to help them live their remaining days with as much quality of life as possible.


In other words: Palliative care is a kind of treatment that can be provided to hospice patients, as well as to those who are not in hospice but are actively pursuing a cure.

What is included in palliative care?

Typically, palliative care is provided to people with serious illness, including cancer, congestive heart failure, COPD, Parkinson’s, and many more.

Palliative care goes beyond just pain relieving medicines. That’s a part of the care received, but there’s more to providing comfort than masking pain.

Palliative care tries to relieve all uncomfortable symptoms of a disease or condition. Often pain is at the top of the list of those symptoms. Other physical symptoms addressed by palliative care include nausea and loss of appetite, fatigue, constipation, insomnia, and so on. 

Treatments for these symptoms may include medicines, but they are likely to go beyond pharmaceuticals and include techniques like massage, physical therapy, relaxation techniques such as tai chi and hypnosis, acupuncture, and more. A palliative care specialist will work with the patient to determine what’s going to work best for their individual symptoms. 

There are also emotional and mental side effects of diseases that can be addressed by palliative care. Depression, anxiety, and fear are common for many fighting an illness. A palliative care specialist can direct a patient toward resources to help with these symptoms and others.

Palliative care is so holistic that it goes beyond treating symptoms of an illness but also includes practical support. A palliative care team might help a patient understand insurance complications and deal with issues that arise at their workplace as they undergo treatment. They may also help a patient prepare essential documents like a living will and power of attorney

As anyone struggles with a serious illness, their loved ones, family members and primary caregivers are also affected. Palliative care can provide support for a patient’s caregivers as well. A palliative care specialist can also help the family understand how to discuss treatment goals and future concerns.

Palliative care is not necessarily associated with imminent death. A person receiving palliative care may live for many years with their illness or condition. Some may go into remission or achieve a cure, eliminating the need for palliative care and other curative treatments.

How is palliative care incorporated into hospice?

If doctors determine that there’s no longer any hope of a cure for a person’s illness, then treatments attempting to cure that illness are likely to end. However, palliative care doesn’t have to end. It can continue to keep the person as comfortable as possible while they live their last days, weeks, and months.

Often, at the point when they determine a disease can’t be cured, doctors will prescribe hospice. It’s intended for about the last six months of life, though some people may only be officially in hospice for a few days and others may live longer than six months after entering hospice.

While in receiving treatment in hospice, palliative care can continue. In fact, it’s an important aspect of hospice, which offers physical, emotional, and spiritual support at the end of a person’s life. 

Some of the pain management techniques offered to abler bodies may not work for terminally ill people in hospice. For example, a hospice patient may not be able to do tai chi or yoga. However, there are pain management techniques that can be offered in hospice alongside pharmaceutical painkillers. Hospice massage, gentle physical therapy, and even aromatherapy can all be part of palliative care in a hospice program.

The emotional and practical support included in palliative care are especially important when a person is in hospice. As death approaches, they are likely to need help dealing with difficult emotions, as well as preparing advance directive paperwork and other end of life tasks. 

If you or a loved one is in a situation where you’d benefit from palliative care, and it hasn’t been offered to you already, ask your doctor about receiving palliative care.

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