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When someone is facing a chronic or terminal illness, the world may spin a bit faster. Things make less sense. Emotions flare. Pain seems more acute. That's why palliative care is vital.
"Palliative care is a recognized subspecialty that focuses on symptom management to enhance quality of life with advanced disease—regardless of prognosis," says Timothy Short, MD, medical director of Palliative Care Services at Northwest Community Healthcare and assistant medical director at Midwest Palliative and Hospice Care Center. "It's different than hospice care in that we take care of anyone with a serious illness that causes discomfort, anxiety or other physical or emotional distress."
Palliative care at NCH focuses on symptom management in all advanced chronic illnesses, not just cancer. That means the palliative care team—medical professionals including physicians, advanced practice nurses, social workers and clergy or chaplains—needs to understand a depth of treatment options for a host of illnesses, all while providing a measure of comfort to patients in both inpatient, outpatient and at-home settings. Sometimes, that also means treatment at nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and specialized hospice centers. Often, palliative care is administered simultaneously with treatment that has a goal of cure or recovery.
"The other role of palliative care is to make sure families and patients are fully informed of the patient's status and prognosis, and that the care they're being offered, both in the hospital and at home, is aligned with what they want—that they remain in charge of their care," Dr. Short says. That's important, because with complex treatment plans, patients sometimes feel as though they are swept up in procedures, appointments and regimens, and are burdened by a loss of control.
Palliative care focuses on providing both physical and psychological comfort. "The word palliative comes from the Latin word pallium, which means a cloak," Dr. Short says. "So I tell the families we put a cloak of comfort around any suffering. We also look at the psychological aspects of suffering, whether it's fear, anxiety or depression, and we focus on relationships within the family. Often, the patient's biggest concern is their family, not themselves. So we help them with that piece also."
Perhaps the greatest advantage for patients with palliative care is the wealth of knowledge of NCH team members, who can tap into expertise to help patients understand the next stage of treatment or life. That, Dr. Short says, can help with the "what-if" decisions regarding healthcare and how to plan accordingly.