Palliative Care and Hospice Care: What are they? What’s the difference?

If you are caring for a very sick family member, you may hear the terms palliative care and hospice care. These terms often cause unnecessary worry and stress as they historically have not been explained very well and therefore people often confuse the two and/or think they mean something different than what they actually are. In this article, we explain the two types of care, and, the difference between them.

Palliative Care

Unlike treatments that focus solely on curing ailments, palliative care seeks to create the best possible quality of life for both a patient facing serious illnesses as well as for their family members. Palliative care is a holistic approach to healthcare, considering the well-being of the entire care team rather than concentrating solely on the patient.

Typically, palliative care is delivered by a dedicated team of healthcare professionals that may include a doctor, a social worker, a chaplain, and a nurse, each contributing their expertise to address different aspects of the patient’s needs.

The social worker handles logistical concerns, such as assisting with paperwork for long-term care facilities or other necessary arrangements. A chaplain is available to address spiritual concerns, irrespective of religious or belief systems, providing support tailored to the individual’s needs. The nurse focuses on managing the physical aspects of the illness, ensuring the patient’s comfort and well-being.

One of the most significant misconceptions about palliative care is that it is exclusively for end-of-life situations. However, palliative care is applicable at any point along the trajectory of an illness, from the moment of diagnosis throughout the entire journey.

Whether someone is grappling with a recent stage one cancer diagnosis or providing care for a family member with dementia over an extended period, palliative care can offer valuable support. It is not limited to specific illnesses or stages, making it a versatile and accessible resource for individuals and their families. Palliative care can help with symptom management, pain, and side effects. It can also help patients, and family members, deal with the feelings that arise from living with a serious illness.

Hospice Care

Hospice care is reserved for people who may be near their end of life In most cases, it becomes an option when a doctor believes a patient has  no more than 6 months to live. Hospice care requires a patient to forgo any medical interventions or treatments designed to cure a disease and instead accept care designed to make the patient comfortable. However, patients can come off of hospice care if their prognosis changes. Patients have the right to change their minds about hospice care and can decide to pursue curative treatments again.

A large percentage of hospice care is provided in a patient’s home with the majority of the care provided by the family member under the guidance of a hospice nurse. The hospice nurse typically establishes a visiting schedule and is available on call as needed. Some hospice care is administered in hospitals, and hospice centers.

Hospice care companies often provide equipment such as walkers, wheelchairs, hospital beds, and shower seats to aid in the care. Families and patients also have access to chaplains and social workers.

Ultimately, hospice care centers around improving the quality of life in the final stages of life, aiming for a dignified and comfortable experience. The focus shifts from curative measures to addressing emotional, spiritual, and physical needs, helping individuals navigate the end of life with as much preparation, support, and pain relief as possible.

If you are caring for someone with significant health issues, ask the doctor about these options as many are hesitant to bring them up and/or may not be well informed about them.

Key takeaways:

  • Palliative care focuses on quality of life including symptom management and  is applicable at any point from the moment of diagnosis throughout the entire illness.
  • Palliative care is available for family caregivers as well as patients.
  • Hospice care is for people closer to end of life.
  • Hospice care requires a patient to forgo medical interventions or treatments designed to cure a disease and instead accept comfort care.

For members only: check out our complete guide to hospice and palliative care.


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