Harvard Health Letter

Palliative care: Sooner may be better

Early introduction of palliative care (well before hospice) improves mood and quality of life — and may help people live longer.

Hospice and palliative care are often talked about as if they are the same thing, but they're not. Hospice is for people who are expected to live for a short time (usually defined as six months or less) who have agreed to stop getting treatment aimed at prolonging life. Palliative care is medical care that aims to relieve pain or suffering and, more generally, to improve a person's quality of life during a serious illness. Palliative care is certainly a major component of hospice care, especially the efforts to relieve pain, but it's not limited to hospice. People who are actively being treated for a disease can receive palliative care at any stage of their illness.

Maintaining this distinction between hospice and palliative care might seem pedantic if it weren't for the serious consequences of confusing the two. Many patients, their families — and even some doctors — associate palliative care only with the end of life and hospice. As a result, palliative care isn't always asked for — or offered — when it's needed. Now some research is beginning to show that many people would benefit if palliative care were provided soon after diagnosis of a serious illness.

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