“Palliative medicine is a specialty trained in caring for patients with acute or chronic diseases for which the focus is on comfort rather than – or perhaps in addition to – treatment focused on the disease,” said Jay Bennett, D.O., one of three palliative care physicians at Marshfield Clinic Marshfield Center.
In the context of an advanced, life-threatening illness, these specialists focus on improving quality of life and function for patients with:
- Other physical symptoms such as:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty breathing and coughing
- Bowel and bladder problems
- Non-physical influences like emotional, mental, spiritual, social or other concerns that are affecting an individual’s well-being or healing
The word “palliative” comes from Latin, pallium, meaning “to cloak or cover.” It is fitting for a specialty that recognizes while medical providers cannot fix some medical conditions, they can almost always help people be more comfortable as they deal with diseases that worsen over time. “A patient should never hear the words, ‘there’s nothing more we can do,’” Dr. Bennett said.
Palliative care is often confused with hospice care, which by definition is for people who have six months or less to live and are no longer seeking curative treatment. Palliative care can be of benefit earlier in the disease process and can be provided in a hospital setting, on a palliative care unit, or in an outpatient clinic. Palliative care specialists may continue to provide care if the patient enrolls in hospice.
This type of care is often associated with a cancer diagnosis, but it can be offered for a variety of disease states, such as heart disease, dementia and other organ failure. Sometimes it may be appropriate for a patient facing multiple issues. An example would be if a patient with advanced dementia were to have a heart attack or hip fracture. In such a situation, it may make more sense to focus care on the patient’s comfort, rather than putting the patient and family through an invasive surgery or procedure.
“We try and assist in connecting patients to an appropriate specialist whether that is another physician for medical questions, a chaplain or pastor for spiritual concerns, or a social worker for financial and social issues,” Dr. Bennett said.