What is palliative care?

Palliative care is the active holistic care of individuals across all ages with serious health-related suffering due to severe illness, and especially of those near the end of life. It aims to improve the quality of life of patients, their families and their caregivers.

Palliative care:

  • Includes, prevention, early identification, comprehensive assessment and management of physical issues, including pain and other distressing symptoms, psychological distress, spiritual distress and social needs. Whenever possible, these interventions must be evidence based.
  • Provides support to help patients live as fully as possible until death by facilitating effective communication, helping them and their families determine goals of care.
  • Is applicable throughout the course of an illness, according to the patient’s needs.
  • Is provided in conjunction with disease modifying therapies whenever needed.
  • May positively influence the course of illness.
  • Intends neither to hasten nor postpone death, affirms life, and recognizes dying as a natural process.
  • Provides support to the family and the caregivers during the patient’s illness, and in their own bereavement.
  • Is delivered recognizing and respecting the cultural values and beliefs of the patient and the family.
  • Is applicable throughout all health care settings (place of residence and institutions) and in all levels (primary to tertiary).
  • Can be provided by professionals with basic palliative care training.
  • Requires specialist palliative care with a multi-professional team for referral of complex cases.

Is palliative care only for adults?

Palliative care is for anyone at any age. The World Health Organization recognises this.

Palliative care for children represents a special, albeit closely related field to adult palliative care. WHO’s definition of palliative care appropriate for children and their families is as follows; the principles apply to other paediatric chronic disorders (WHO; 1998a):

  • Palliative care for children is the active total care of the child's body, mind and spirit, and also involves giving support to the family.
  • It begins when illness is diagnosed, and continues regardless of whether or not a child receives treatment directed at the disease.
  • Health providers must evaluate and alleviate a child's physical, psychological, and social distress.
  • Effective palliative care requires a broad multidisciplinary approach that includes the family and makes use of available community resources; it can be successfully implemented even if resources are limited.
  • It can be provided in tertiary care facilities, in community health centres and even in children's homes.

Does receiving Palliative Care mean that I will die sooner?

No! Studies have shown that patients with appropriate pain and symptom management often live longer and enjoy a better quality of life than those without.

If I have palliative care does it mean my doctors have given up and I’ll no longer receive active treatment for my illness?

You can receive palliative care alongside active treatments for your illness, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. You can receive support alongside treatment from the doctors and nurses who have been treating your particular illness.

When should palliative care begin?

Palliative care can begin whenever you and your doctor believe it can help. Ideally, palliative care should be available from the time of diagnosis and last throughout the course of the illness. Recent research indicates that early involvement of palliative care may actually help people who are dealing with serious medical issues live longer.

Where do patients receive palliative care?

Palliative care can be received in any setting. Many patients begin receiving palliative care while in the hospital. Others receive palliative care in their home, in an out-patient clinic, or in a nursing home.

Is a palliative care consultation only for a cancer diagnosis?

Palliative care is for anyone facing a complex or serious health issue, or who is experiencing serious health-related suffering. Palliative care applies whether you expect full recovery, experience progressive loss of function or have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Palliative care has benefited many patients facing a variety of serious medical conditions, such as cancer; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); kidney failure; Alzheimer's; cardiac disease such as congestive heart failure (CHF); and HIV/AIDS.

Will I become addicted to pain medications?

This is a common concern, however, patients who take medications for the purpose of pain control very rarely become addicted to their medicine. Some patients may develop tolerance to medications over time and may require a higher dose to achieve the same effect. Addiction is classified as a medical condition characterized by the compulsive use of drugs despite the harmful consequences, and is not commonly seen in patients taking medicine for the relief of severe pain.

How are family members involved in a palliative care consultation?

The palliative care team works with you and your family to help reduce anxiety and stress, bring clarity to the situation, and help facilitate difficult conversations. Our team will listen carefully to and respect your goals, preferences, and choices, with sensitivity to religious and cultural preferences. We make sure family members are involved and receive support through the course of a loved one’s illness, because we know the health and well-being of the family or caregiver can help improve a patient’s quality of life, too.