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What You Need to Know About Hospice and Palliative Care

Photo: Courtesy of Christian Langballe

One of the most frequent comments hospice professionals hear from family members is “Why did we wait so long to take advantage of hospice care?”.  A simple answer would be, that people incorrectly think of hospice care as “giving up.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hospice is about living as fully as possible despite one’s illness.

Additionally, many Americans are unfamiliar with the term “palliative care.”  Like hospice, palliative care brings a focus on comfort, support and quality of life that might be missing from more conventional medical care delivery.

Yet, far too often it’s up to the patient and family to ask about availability of palliative care and the value of hospice.

Both hospice and palliative care involve a team-based and person-centered approach to expert medical care, pain management and emotional and spiritual support tailored to the person’s needs and wishes. Support is provided to the person’s loved ones as well.

Hospice care

It is important to know that hospice is not a place but it is a special kind of care. The goal of hospice is to treat the whole person and not just the disease when a cure is no longer possible. Support and caregiving training is provided to the family caregivers as well. The focus is on comfort and quality of life, not the length of time the individual has left to live.

All of the necessary medicines and equipment needed to keep a patient comfortable can be brought to the home, which is where most Americans would like to be if possible. Hospice also offers grief support and counseling to family caregivers for up to a year following the death of their loved one.

Many people think hospice care is only for a person with a cancer diagnosis. In reality, less than 35 percent of hospice patients have cancer. Hospices can also serve people with Alzheimer’s disease, other forms of dementia, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, liver disease and stroke.

Hospice is best suited for the final months of life and not just the final days.  In fact, far too many patients (34 percent) receive care for seven days or less. This amount of time is far too short for the patient or the family caregiver to benefit from the wide range of services that the hospice interdisciplinary team can offer.

Hospice is paid for by Medicare, Medicaid, most private insurance plans, HMOs and other managed care organizations.  Hospices also care for people who don’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay for the services.

Palliative care

Palliative care reflects a similar philosophy, but can be provided to the patient earlier in the course of a serious illness. Palliative care can be provided alongside treatments and curative care. It can be offered beginning with the diagnosis of a serious illness.

Like hospice, palliative care is patient and family-centered care that optimizes quality of life by anticipating, preventing and treating the patient’s suffering.

Many hospitals have palliative care programs. Additionally, in many communities, hospices are the lead providers of home-based palliative care services.

Focus on living

With the help of hospice and palliative care, patients and families can focus on what’s most important, living as fully as possible despite illness.

More than 1.6 million Americans with a life-limiting illness and their family caregivers were served by our nation’s hospices last year — a number that has grown as more people understand the many benefits that hospice care offers.

As soon as you find out you or a loved one is facing a serious illness, ask a doctor or health care provider about the availability of palliative care and the benefits that hospice care offers later in the course of the illness.

Edo Banach, JD, President and CEO, National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, [email protected]

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