Getting diagnosed with a serious illness affects more than a person’s physical health. It can touch multiple areas of their life, including their emotional well-being, finances, and social and spiritual life. A patient’s diagnosis can also significantly impact their family’s lives as well.
Receiving an unexpected diagnosis is hard enough—without having to worry about all the other ways it can impact your life. That’s why, as part of a normal treatment regimen, patients have access to palliative care, and are encouraged to utilize it.
“Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illness, the goal of which is to improve quality of life for patients and their families,” says Nathan E. Goldstein, MD, a palliative care specialist at Mount Sinai in New York City. “The goal of palliative care is to improve patients’ symptoms so they can get the underlying treatment they need aimed at curing or prolonging their life.”
Palliative care may include help with:
Physical symptoms. Palliative care can help with any physical symptom that may be affecting a patient’s quality of life, such as feeling pain or having trouble sleeping or eating. These treatments may include medications, nutritional guidance, physical therapy, occupational therapy, or integrative therapies.
Emotional, social, and coping problems.Patients and their families may face a lot of stress as they cope with an illness, which can lead to other mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression. Palliative care treatments to help patients cope with emotional issues may include therapy, support groups, or family meetings.
Practical issues. Palliative care can also help with practical money- or job-related problems that an illness may bring up. Palliative care can help with financial counseling, housing, or transportation.
Spiritual guidance. When faced with an illness, a patient may look for meaning in what’s happening to them and/or question their faith. Palliative care can address these issues and help patients explore their feelings and find acceptance.
Who Can Get Palliative Care?
Palliative care is a resource for anyone living with a serious illness, such as heart failure, cancer, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Palliative care may not be appropriate for patients with chronic conditions that aren’t serious, says Dr. Goldstein. “For example, patients with chronic back pain, while they’re certainly suffering with pain, may not be appropriate for palliative care.”
There’s a common misconception that patients who receive palliative care are at the end of their lives. “That’s absolutely not true,” says Dr. Goldstein. “Palliative care is for any age, at any stage—and people who get palliative care will live years and years, and many people who get palliative care will actually be cured.”