Receiving a diagnosis of serious illness or terminal condition can bring up an array of overwhelming emotions. You want to make sure you or your loved one receives the best care possible, but it’s hard to know where to start.
Two similar but distinct types of treatment are common for serious and life-limiting conditions: palliative care and hospice care.
While both aim to minimize suffering and improve quality of life, there are some key differences.
What are palliative care and hospice care?
Palliative care and hospice care are specialized forms of medical treatment that focus on comfort care, which means managing a patient’s pain and other distressing symptoms. They are based on a philosophy of caring for the whole person versus focusing solely on the disease.
“When people are diagnosed with a new serious illness or a life-limiting or terminal condition, we have a basic conversation about what is most important to them, what do they really value, and what are their main priorities in life. Then we help map out how that interfaces with a treatment plan,” says Dr. Erin Kross, co-director of the Cambia Palliative Care Center of Excellence at UW Medicine.
The modern hospice movement began in 1967 when Dame Cecily Saunders, a British physician, opened the world’s first hospice center. Saunders aimed to provide holistic, dignified care for people at the end of their lives, including social, emotional, spiritual, practical and medical support, as well as support for a patient’s family. Palliative care was born out of hospice care and expanded its philosophy to apply to a larger population of people, not just those at the end of their lives.
“To me, palliative care is a larger umbrella which hospice care falls under,” Kross says.
Both hospice care and palliative care are interdisciplinary, meaning the care team can include a variety of specialists — such as doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists and chaplains — depending on a patient’s needs.
What are the differences between palliative care and hospice care?
The key difference between palliative and hospice care is who is eligible.
Hospice care is for people who are at the end of their lives. In Washington state, a provider must certify that a person is terminally ill with less than six months to live for that individual to receive hospice care. Entering hospice care also means patients will no longer receive life-prolonging treatment, such as chemotherapy.
On the other hand, palliative care is available for anyone living with serious illness, such as cancer, heart failure or chronic lung disease. People receiving palliative care can continue to receive life-prolonging medical treatment.
“Palliative care is an extra layer of support that enhances your current care by focusing on quality of life and supporting patients and families living with serious illness,” Kross says. “I differentiate that from hospice care, which is care that focuses on comfort at the end of life when the goals of treatment is no longer prolonging life or curing the underlying condition.”
What are the benefits of palliative and hospice care?
Palliative and hospice care help improve people’s quality of life so they are more comfortable and able to make the most of their time according to what they want. It also provides support for family members, such as practical help, education and counseling.
“It really brings these more human aspects of medicine and health to the center of the care plan,” Kross says. “Palliative care is important because it puts the person at the center of the treatment plan and shines a light on all of these important aspects of who we all are as humans that sometimes get lost when you are a patient in the medical system.”
This means a patient not only receives help with physical pain management, but also mental health support in facing serious illness and death, aid in completing end-of-life documents like determining a legal surrogate, and spiritual support.
Plus, some studies have shown that when used in addition to standard treatment for people with metastatic lung cancer, palliative care can help people live longer. For Kross, this shows that palliative care is not only useful in end-of-life contexts but also benefits a wide range of people undergoing treatment for serious conditions.
What are common misconceptions about palliative care and hospice care?
It’s normal to not want to think about serious illness, death and dying, but understanding treatment options (and dispelling common misconceptions), can help you make decisions for yourself or a loved one.
Unlike hospice, palliative care is for anyone with a serious illness — not just people who are dying
While we’ve mentioned it before, it’s worth noting this distinction between palliative and hospice care again.
“It’s really important for people to know that palliative care is for anyone with a serious illness, and that you can get palliative care and continue to get treatments,” Kross says.
Hospice is a type of care — not a place
It’s common for people to think hospice is a place you go for care, but both hospice and palliative care can be provided at many locations, including in a person’s home.
“It’s more of a philosophy of care. It can be delivered anywhere — in patients’ homes, in care facilities, in a care center or an inpatient unit,” Kross says.
Hospice provides intermittent in-home support — not 24/7 in-home care
If you’re receiving hospice care at home, members from your care team will visit on a regular schedule but will not provide 24/7 care, Kross says. This means it is necessary to have a caregiver (a family member, friend or hired personal aide) to help with practical day-to-day needs.
Hospice services provide 24/7 on-call medical assistance in case of an emergency.
Hospice and palliative care are about improving the quality of your life — not about giving up
Especially if you are transitioning to hospice care and are no longer receiving life-prolonging treatments, it can sometimes feel like your medical team is giving up, but this isn’t the case.
When treatment can no longer provide a cure and a person is in the last months of life, transitioning to hospice allows them to get the best care possible, be comfortable and have support from trained professionals as they navigate end-of-life challenges.
In other words, palliative and hospice care allow patients to feel the best they can physically and emotionally during serious illness and end of life — and provides them with a knowledgeable support team to lean on so they don’t have to go through these experiences alone.
“This really is phenomenal, person and family-centered care,” Kross says.