Palliative Medicine and Quality of Life

Palliative Care

Can Palliative Medicine Improve my Quality of Life Now?

by Beth Martin, RN, MSN, ACNP-BC, ACHPN

Rosa and Bill have been married 51 years. Two years ago, Rosa began showing signs of depression. She started having difficulty managing household tasks. Bill noticed that Rosa often forgot important events. She no longer enjoyed crossword puzzles or reading her favorite mysteries.

A visit to their doctor confirmed Bill and Rosa’s fears – there was evidence that Rosa had dementia. Bill and Rosa had already planned carefully for their retirement and with this news, they knew they needed to ensure that their legal and financial plans were also in order. As part of their healthcare planning, Bill and Rosa sought a palliative medicine consultation.

Over a decade ago, palliative medicine (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) — specialized medical care for people living with serious illness — was considered niche. Today it’s mainstream, with 72% of the nation’s large and medium-size hospitals offering palliative care. It focuses on providing relief from the symptoms and stress of a serious illness, with the goal being to improve quality of life for both the patient and their family. Care is provided by a team of trained specialists who work with the patient, their family, and other doctors to achieve the patient’s desired goals.

Palliative medicine is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and can be provided along with curative treatment. The care team focuses on improving healthcare quality by relieving physical and emotional suffering, strengthening patient/family/doctor communication and decision-making, and ensuring well-coordinated care across healthcare settings with both curative and palliative care providers, according to the Center to Advance Palliative Care.

Bill and Rosa met with a palliative medicine physician. Together they reviewed Rosa’s health history and discussed her dementia. The physician asked how they had been coping at home and listened carefully as Bill described the different behaviors he had seen in Rosa. He was able to provide information about what to expect, and let them know the symptoms that Rosa was likely to exhibit moving forward. He shared important safety measures that were to be followed, and asked Rosa her values and preferences so that he could suggest ways to improve her quality of life. The palliative medicine physician became an important member of Bill and Rosa’s healthcare team, providing extensive education, managing her symptoms, and assuring complex healthcare decisions were made with Rosa’s preferences in mind.

One of the biggest myths about palliative medicine is that it is only for dying people. This is not true. Hospice care is only prescribed for those who have been deemed by two physicians to have no more than six months to live, palliative care is available to those with chronic conditions – from cancer, to congestive heart failure – not necessarily terminal illnesses.

Substitute heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, cancer, or another serious illness in the above story and the results are the same. The palliative medicine specialist focuses on relief of the symptoms and stress associated with serious illness. The specialist will help you understand the diagnosis and disease, assist with complex medical decision-making, and help match your goals to the treatment choices. Palliative medicine specialists work in partnership with your primary doctor, giving you more control over your care. Most insurance plans cover all or part of palliative medicine, just as with other medical services.