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What is palliative care? The answer might not be what you think

Many people associate the term “palliative care” with hospice or end-of-life situations. That’s not exactly true, according to University of Minnesota Health expert Drew Rosielle, MD.
Many people associate the term “palliative care” with hospice or end-of-life situations. That’s not exactly true, according to University of Minnesota Health expert Drew Rosielle, MD.

When it comes to the term “palliative care,” there’s no shortage of misunderstandings.

Most people immediately think of hospice, which is designed to make people feel comfortable in their remaining weeks and months of life. In reality, though, most palliative care patients are not in end-of-life care situations.

“Palliative care is available and appropriate for anyone who has been diagnosed with a major illness that could alter their life,” said Palliative Care Physician Drew Rosielle, MD, who is the medical director of the University of Minnesota Health Palliative Care Program. “It involves specialized physicians, nurse practitioners, social workers, therapists and spiritual experts who work with a patient’s other clinicians to offer more comprehensive support. We address everything from pain and nausea to insomnia and grief.”

The primary goal of palliative care is to improve patient’s quality of life, Rosielle said. Often, this means alleviating the symptoms of a medical conditions or the side effects of treatment. Palliative care teams also offer emotional support and make sure patients know what to expect as they move forward with treatment.

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When needed, palliative care providers can help patients and families manage end-of-life care—but this is only one facet of the specialty, Rosielle said.

“We see a lot of patients with leukemia, for example. Leukemia treatment may cause physical symptoms, as well as stress and emotional concerns,” Rosielle said. “Our team works with these patients to improve their experience and outcomes. But we also care for these patients even when they are likely to be cured, which most people don’t realize.”

The palliative care field originated in the 1970s to fill a gap in the patient experience, and has evolved over the decades, Rosielle said. Many patients with advanced illnesses would see qualified specialists such as an oncologist or transplant surgeon. But they still struggled with certain symptoms such as pain or distress. Palliative care was developed to address those needs. Studies show that palliative care can benefit patients by improving their quality of life, reducing the amount of time they spend in an intensive care units and cutting costs.

The University of Minnesota Health palliative care program is one of only nine programs nationwide to receive a Palliative Care Leadership Centers designation by the Center to Advance Palliative Care. Since 2003, our palliative care program has helped train providers from roughly 100 other hospitals and health systems, extending the benefits of the service to patients around the nation.

Looking ahead, Rosielle says palliative care is expanding to in-home and nursing home settings. This advancement will likely lead to improvements in care coordination, he added.

“I realized the part of being a doctor that I loved most was counseling patients and families, and supporting them during hard times,” he said. “Palliative care allowed me to make that the focus of my practice. We combine a high level of medical expertise and emotional support to improve patients’ health and experience.”