Myths and Facts about Palliative Care

Our Advance Care Planning Specialists and Care Alignment Coordinators have helped more than 300,000 clients and loved ones prepare for difficult medical decisions they may face in the future. Palliative care is an important service for people with advanced illness to be aware of, yet it is often met with confusion when we bring it up. Many clients and caregivers have never heard of the term—and if they’re familiar with it, they most often mistakenly think of it is another name for hospice care. This article is intended to help clear up any confusion.

The mission of Vital Decisions is to help our clients and caregivers advocate for themselves so their voice is heard in any medical situation they encounter. One way we do that is to ensure that they’re informed about any options for care they may have. This guide is designed to answer common questions and clarify misunderstandings we commonly hear. It is meant to spark further discussion, and as always, we encourage anyone who has additional questions, or is considering palliative care in their treatment plan, to talk about it with their medical provider.

So, what exactly is palliative care?

Palliative care is care for people who are coping with a serious or chronic illness. Its goals are to relieve symptoms, increase comfort, and improve quality of life. Palliative care teams work with your other doctors and offer an extra layer of support. The team may include doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, and others. Support is also provided to caregivers and family members impacted by their loved one’s illness.

Here are some common myths about palliative care and the facts to know:

  1. Myth: Palliative care is just for people with cancer’

Fact: Palliative care can be offered to people who are coping with a wide range of serious illnesses, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), heart failure, liver or kidney failure, Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and more.

  1. Myth: ‘Palliative Care or comfort care means giving up’

Fact: Because palliative care provides additional supports and promotes quality of life for individuals and their loved ones, people who receive palliative care live better and may even live longer. Their hospital stays may be shorter and less frequent. And they are often more satisfied with the care they’ve received.

  1. Myth: ‘I’d have to sign a DNR or accept morphine’

Fact: Palliative care is all about working with people where they are. Choices about treatment options always remain in the hands of the person receiving care.

  1. Myth: ‘Palliative care is the same as hospice’

Fact: Palliative care and hospice both provide comfort and relief from suffering. However, palliative care can improve an individual’s quality of life at any point in their treatment journey, and can be provided alongside treatments that are intended to cure or manage illness. Hospice is usually intended to provide comfort care near the end of life, when the individual has opted out of curative treatments.

  1. Myth: ‘I will have to take pain medication which causes addiction’

Fact: Palliative care offers a variety of forms of pain relief. Pain medication can be part of treatment, if you elect it, but is not the only way relief can be offered. Any treatments that you elect as part of your palliative care will be monitored for safety and effectiveness by your palliative care team, and can be adjusted as needed. Other forms of therapy such as physical therapy or massage therapy could be included in a pain management plan.

  1. Myth: ‘I won’t be able to afford a palliative care team’

Fact: Most health plans have options that cover all or some of the costs of engaging in palliative care. Check with your health insurance provider to see what’s offered and available in your area.

  1. Myth: ‘I like my doctor I don’t want to switch providers’

Fact: Engaging with a palliative care team does not replace your current medical providers. You can work with a palliative care team alongside any of your current medical providers. The palliative care team and your medical team will communicate with each other so they all can be on the same page about your care.