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Confusion over palliative care causes issues, experts say

December 18, 2013

Palliative care can offer many benefits to older adults living with a chronic illness, but a large number of patients and doctors may hesitate to take advantage of the helpful service due to confusion over this form of care's role in senior living. A new review from experts at Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, the American Cancer Society and Johns Hopkins University found that palliative care is often incorrectly associated with end of life, which has created a significant identity problem.

The findings appear in The New England Journal of Medicine, and highlight the fact that palliative care should be used alongside other medical treatment, and not after the original course has proven ineffective. Contrary to hospice care, palliative care is meant to improve quality of life for patients who face a curable illness. Specifically, it is used to manage symptoms that can be present at any stage of life.

"The practice and policy behind palliative care must be considered independently from end-of-life care," wrote the authors. "Palliative care should no longer be reserved exclusively for those who have exhausted options for life-prolonging therapies."

According to the National Cancer Institute, palliative care is used not only to treat the physical side effects of treatment, but also to alleviate many of the emotional symptoms that impact the lives of older adults with a chronic condition. For instance, specialists can provide both families and patients with the resources available to cope with their diagnosis and treatment. This can range anywhere from offering information on support groups to arranging family meetings. As a result, patients may be less likely to develop symptoms of depression and anxiety.