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Palliative Care

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Stefano Mirabello NowPatientGreen tick
Written by Rajive Patel, BPharm
Updated on 18 Jan 2024
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Palliative care is a specialized approach to healthcare that focuses on improving the quality of life for individuals facing serious illnesses.  It can be introduced as part of a long term care package. It is an interdisciplinary field that addresses the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs of patients and their families. Palliative care is provided by a team of healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, chaplains, and other specialists, working together to provide comprehensive support and symptom management. The goal of palliative care is to alleviate suffering and improve the overall well-being of individuals with serious illnesses, regardless of the prognosis. It can be provided alongside curative or life-prolonging treatments, and it is not limited to end-of-life care. Palliative care can be initiated at any stage of a serious illness, from the time of diagnosis through treatment, and into survivorship or end-of-life care. Whereas, curative treatment tends to be used to overcome disease and promote recovery;  palliative care affords relief, but not cure.

What are the key principles of palliative care?

  • Holistic Approach: Palliative care focuses on addressing the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of patients. It considers the person as a whole, not just their disease or symptoms
  • Symptom Management: Palliative care aims to provide relief from pain, discomfort, and other distressing symptoms associated with the illness and its treatments. This includes pain management, symptom control, and support for side effects of treatments
  • Communication and Shared Decision Making: Palliative care emphasizes open and honest communication among patients, families, and the healthcare team. It promotes shared decision making, ensuring that patients and their families are actively involved in determining their goals of care and treatment options
  • Emotional and Psychosocial Support: Palliative care addresses the emotional, psychological, and social challenges faced by patients and their families. It provides counseling, emotional support, and assistance with coping strategies, grief, and bereavement
  • Care Coordination: Palliative care involves coordination and collaboration among healthcare professionals to ensure continuity of care. It facilitates communication between different healthcare providers and helps patients navigate the complex healthcare system
  • Advance Care Planning: Palliative care encourages discussions about advance care planning, including the development of advance directives and designation of a healthcare proxy. This ensures that patients’ preferences and goals of care are honored

What is palliative care and what are the benefits?

  • Improved Quality of Life: Palliative care aims to enhance the quality of life for patients by managing symptoms, optimizing physical and emotional well-being, and supporting the individual’s goals and values
  • Enhanced Communication and Decision Making: Palliative care promotes open and honest communication among patients, families, and healthcare providers. It helps individuals make informed decisions about their care based on their values, goals, and preferences
  • Better Symptom Management: Palliative care focuses on managing physical symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, nausea, and fatigue. By providing tailored interventions, medications, and therapies, it helps alleviate distressing symptoms
  • Psychosocial and Emotional Support: Palliative care offers emotional support, counseling, and resources to address the psychological and social challenges associated with serious illness. It helps patients and families cope with anxiety, depression, grief, and adjustment issues
  • Support for Caregivers: Palliative care recognizes the essential role of caregivers and provides support, education, and respite care to alleviate the physical, emotional, and practical burdens they may experience

How is palliative care managed in the UK?

In the United Kingdom, the treatment plan for palliative care is centered around a multidisciplinary approach to address the specific needs and goals of each individual. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) provides guidelines for the referrals and delivery of palliative care in the UK.  Here are key components of the treatment plan:

  • Comprehensive Assessment: A thorough assessment is conducted to understand the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs of the individual and their family. This assessment helps identify symptoms, concerns, and goals of care
  • Symptom Management: Palliative care focuses on effective symptom management to improve the individual’s comfort and well-being. This includes pain management, control of nausea and vomiting, management of breathlessness, and addressing other distressing symptoms
  • Medication Management: Palliative care involves the appropriate use of medications to alleviate symptoms and manage disease-related complications. This includes ensuring optimal pain relief and addressing medication side effects
  • Emotional and Psychological Support: Palliative care provides emotional and psychological support to help individuals and their families cope with the challenges associated with a serious illness. This may involve counseling, psychosocial support, and assistance with anxiety, depression, or grief
  • Spiritual Care: Palliative care recognizes the importance of addressing spiritual and existential concerns. Chaplains or spiritual advisors may be involved to provide support and guidance according to the individual’s beliefs and preferences
  • Rehabilitation and Therapy: Palliative care may involve rehabilitation interventions to optimize physical function and improve quality of life. This may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, and other specialized therapies as needed
  • Advance Care Planning: Palliative care encourages discussions about advance care planning and end-of-life preferences. This ensures that the individual’s wishes regarding medical interventions, resuscitation, and other end-of-life decisions are known and respected
  • Care Coordination and Communication: Palliative care involves coordination among healthcare professionals to ensure seamless delivery of care. This includes regular communication and collaboration with the primary care team, specialists, and other healthcare providers involved in the individual’s care
  • Bereavement Support: Palliative care extends support to family members and loved ones during and after the individual’s illness and at the time of bereavement. This may involve counseling, grief support groups, and assistance with practical matters

The specific treatment plan for palliative care in the UK is tailored to the individual’s unique needs and preferences. It is based on ongoing assessment, regular communication, and collaboration among the healthcare team, the individual, and their family. The goal is to provide holistic care that enhances quality of life, supports the individual’s goals, and respects their dignity and autonomy throughout the palliative care journey.

How is palliative care managed in the US?

In the United States, palliative care aims to provide comprehensive support and symptom management for individuals facing serious illnesses. The treatment plan for palliative care in the US is based on an individualized approach and may include the following components:

  • Holistic Assessment: A thorough assessment is conducted to evaluate the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs of the individual and their family. This assessment helps identify symptoms, concerns, and goals of care
  • Symptom Management: Palliative care focuses on relieving distressing symptoms to improve the individual’s comfort and well-being. This includes effective pain management, control of nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, and constipation
  • Medication Management: Palliative care involves the appropriate use of medications to alleviate symptoms and manage disease-related complications. This includes adjusting and optimizing medications to provide maximum symptom relief and minimize side effects
  • Emotional and Psychosocial Support: Palliative care provides emotional support and counseling to help individuals and their families cope with the emotional and psychological challenges associated with serious illness. Psychosocial support may include assistance with anxiety, depression, grief, and addressing concerns related to relationships, communication, and decision-making
  • Advance Care Planning: Palliative care encourages discussions about advance care planning, including the development of advance directives, living wills, and designation of a healthcare proxy. This ensures that the individual’s preferences and goals of care are respected and communicated effectively
  •  Care Coordination: Palliative care involves coordination and collaboration among healthcare providers to ensure continuity and seamless delivery of care. This may include communication with primary care physicians, specialists, and other healthcare professionals involved in the individual’s care
  • Spiritual Care: Palliative care recognizes the importance of addressing spiritual and existential concerns. Chaplains or spiritual advisors may be involved to provide support, guidance, and facilitate discussions based on the individual’s beliefs and values
  • Rehabilitation and Supportive Therapies: Palliative care may involve rehabilitative interventions, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, to optimize physical function, improve mobility, and enhance quality of life
  • Education and Caregiver Support: Palliative care provides education and support to individuals and their families to enhance their understanding of the illness, available resources, and strategies for managing care. It also offers assistance and guidance to caregivers, addressing their needs and promoting their well-being
  • Bereavement Support: Palliative care extends support to family members and loved ones during and after the individual’s illness and at the time of bereavement. This may involve counseling, grief support groups, and assistance with practical matters

The treatment plan for palliative care in the US is tailored to the individual’s specific needs, preferences, and goals. It is based on ongoing assessment, open communication, and collaboration among the healthcare team, the individual, and their family. The primary focus is on enhancing quality of life, providing comfort, and supporting the individual and their loved ones throughout the palliative care journey.

What are the medication treatment goals for palliative care in the UK?

In palliative care in the UK, medication goals are centered around providing symptom relief, improving comfort, and enhancing the quality of life for individuals with serious illnesses. The specific medication goals may vary depending on the symptoms and needs of each individual, but the following general objectives are commonly pursued:

  • Effective Pain Management: Pain control is a key priority in palliative care. The goal is to provide adequate pain relief, aiming for a balance between managing pain and minimizing side effects. Medications such as opioids (e.g., morphine, oxycodone), adjuvant analgesics (e.g., antidepressants, anticonvulsants), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be utilized based on the type and severity of pain
  • Symptom Control: Palliative care focuses on managing various distressing symptoms associated with serious illnesses. This includes addressing symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, fatigue, constipation, anxiety, and depression. Medications specific to each symptom or a combination of medications may be prescribed to alleviate these symptoms
  • Individualized Medication Plans: Medication plans in palliative care are individualized based on the specific needs, preferences, and goals of each individual. The healthcare team works closely with the patient and their family to develop a tailored medication plan that takes into account factors such as the severity of symptoms, response to medications, potential side effects, and the individual’s overall well-being
  • Regular Medication Review: Ongoing medication review and adjustments are integral to palliative care. The healthcare team regularly assesses the effectiveness of medications, monitors for side effects, and makes necessary modifications to ensure optimal symptom management and minimize any adverse effects
  • Flexible Medication Approaches: Palliative care recognizes that medication needs may change over time, and flexibility is required to accommodate individual preferences and circumstances. The medication regimen may be adjusted as symptoms evolve or new symptoms arise to ensure optimal control and maximum comfort
  • Multimodal Approach: Palliative care often employs a multimodal approach to symptom management, combining medications with other interventions such as physical therapy, complementary therapies, and psychological support. This comprehensive approach aims to enhance the overall effectiveness of treatment and improve the individual’s well-being
  • Regular Communication and Education: The healthcare team communicates regularly with the patient and their family to provide education about medications, explain potential side effects, and address any concerns or questions. Open communication helps ensure that the patient and their family are informed partners in the decision-making process regarding medication choices and adjustments

What are the medication treatment goals for palliative care in the US?

In the United States, medication goals in palliative care align with providing symptom relief, optimizing comfort, and improving the quality of life for individuals with serious illnesses. The specific medication goals may vary based on the individual’s symptoms, preferences, and goals of care, but the following general objectives are commonly pursued:

  • Effective Pain Management: Pain control is a primary focus of palliative care. The goal is to alleviate pain and minimize suffering. Medications such as opioids (e.g., morphine, fentanyl), adjuvant analgesics (e.g., antidepressants, anticonvulsants), and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be prescribed to manage pain, tailored to the individual’s pain intensity, type, and responsiveness
  • Symptom Control: Palliative care addresses a wide range of distressing symptoms associated with serious illnesses. Medications are utilized to manage symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, fatigue, constipation, anxiety, depression, and others. The selection and adjustment of medications are based on individual symptom profiles and response to treatment
  • Individualized Medication Plans: Medication plans in palliative care are personalized to meet the specific needs, preferences, and goals of each individual. The healthcare team works closely with the patient and their family to develop a tailored medication plan, considering factors such as symptom severity, treatment response, potential side effects, and the individual’s overall well-being
  • Regular Medication Review: Ongoing medication review and adjustments are important in palliative care. The healthcare team routinely assesses the effectiveness of medications, monitors for side effects, and makes necessary modifications to optimize symptom management, minimize adverse effects, and ensure comfort
  • Flexible Medication Approaches: Palliative care recognizes the dynamic nature of symptom management and the evolving needs of individuals. Medication regimens may be adjusted and adapted over time to accommodate changing symptoms, treatment responses, and individual preferences. Flexibility is crucial to ensure individualized care and maximum comfort
  • Multimodal Approach: Palliative care often employs a multimodal approach to symptom management, combining medications with other interventions such as physical therapy, complementary therapies, counseling, and psychological support for mental health. This integrated approach aims to enhance symptom control, improve overall well-being, and address the multifaceted needs of the individual
  • Patient and Family Education: The healthcare team provides ongoing education and communication to the patient and their family regarding medications. This includes information about medication use, potential side effects, expectations, and strategies for managing medication-related concerns. Open communication helps ensure that the patient and their family are well-informed and actively involved in decision-making

What medications are used in palliative care?

Analgesics – Palliative medicine for Pain Management

  • Opioids: Morphine, Oxycodone, Fentanyl, Hydromorphone
  • Adjuvant analgesics: Gabapentin, Pregabalin, Amitriptyline, Duloxetine

Antiemetics (Nausea and Vomiting)

  • 5-HT3 receptor antagonists: Ondansetron, Granisetron
  • Dopamine antagonists: Metoclopramide, Prochlorperazine, Haloperidol
  • Corticosteroids: Dexamethasone

Antidepressants (Depression, Anxiety, Neuropathic Pain)

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): Fluoxetine, Sertraline, Citalopram
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs): Amitriptyline, Nortriptyline

Anxiolytics (Anxiety and Restlessness)

  • Benzodiazepines: Lorazepam, Diazepam, Midazolam

Antipsychotics (Delirium, Agitation)

  • Typical Antipsychotics: Haloperidol
  • Atypical Antipsychotics: Olanzapine, Quetiapine, Risperidone

Steroids (Symptom Control, Reducing Inflammation)

  • Dexamethasone
  • Prednisone

Bronchodilators (Respiratory Symptoms)

  • Short-acting bronchodilators: Albuterol, ipratropium bromide
  • Long-acting bronchodilators: Tiotropium, Formoterol

Laxatives (Constipation)

  • Bulk-forming agents: Psyllium, Methylcellulose
  • Osmotic laxatives: Polyethylene glycol, Lactulose
  • Stimulant laxatives: Senna, Bisacodyl

Anticoagulants (Preventing Blood Clots)

  • Low Molecular Weight Heparin (LMWH): Enoxaparin, Dalteparin
  • Warfarin

Antipyretics (Fever)

  • Acetaminophen (Paracetamol)
  • Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs): Ibuprofen, Naproxen

Palliative care and end-of-life care

Palliative care shares many principles with end-of-life or hospice care, but it is not limited to the final stages of life. Palliative care can be provided alongside curative or life-prolonging treatments, and it focuses on improving quality of life throughout the illness trajectory. However, when a cure is no longer possible or when the focus shifts to comfort and support, palliative care can transition into end-of-life or hospice

What palliative care support organisations are there available to support me in the UK?

In the UK, there are several palliative care support organizations that provide assistance and resources to individuals and families. Here are some prominent organizations you can reach out to for support:

  1. Marie Curie: Marie Curie palliative care specialists offers care and support to people living with a terminal illness and their families. They provide free nursing care, hospices, and a 24/7 support line
  2. Hospice UK: Hospice UK is a national charity that supports over 200 local hospices across the UK. They provide information, advice, and support services for people living with a terminal illness and their families
  3. Macmillan Cancer Support: While Macmillan Cancer Support primarily focuses on cancer-related issues, they offer a range of palliative care services and support care needs. They have a helpline, online community, and provide practical, emotional, and financial assistance
  4. Sue Ryder: Sue Ryder is a charity that provides palliative, neurological, and bereavement support. They have hospices, community-based services, and an online community for individuals and families
  5. NHS Palliative Care Services: The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK offers comprehensive palliative care services. You can access these services through your GP (general practitioner) or local healthcare provider. They can provide medical, nursing, and social support, as well as access to specialist palliative care teams
  6. Dying Matters: Dying Matters is a national coalition that aims to raise awareness and promote open discussions about dying, death, and bereavement. They provide information and resources to help individuals and families make informed decisions about end-of-life care

What palliative care support organisations are there available to support me in the US?

In the United States, there are several palliative care support organizations that provide assistance and resources to individuals and families. Here are some prominent organizations you can reach out to for support:

  1. National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO): NHPCO is the largest organization representing hospice and palliative care providers in the United States. They offer resources, educational materials, and a provider directory to help individuals find palliative care services in their area
  2. Hospice Foundation of America (HFA): HFA provides information, resources, and support to individuals and families facing end-of-life issues. They have an online directory to help locate hospice and palliative care providers, as well as educational programs and support groups
  3. Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC): CAPC is a national organization focused on advancing the delivery of palliative care in the United States. They offer resources and training programs for healthcare professionals and have a provider directory to help individuals find palliative care services
  4. Supportive Care Coalition: The Supportive Care Coalition is an alliance of organizations committed to improving the quality of supportive care services across the United States. They provide information, resources, and a directory of member organizations offering palliative care support
  5. The CaringInfo helpline: CaringInfo, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, offers a toll-free helpline that provides information and resources on end-of-life care, including palliative care. You can reach them at 1-800-658-8898
  6. Local Hospice and Palliative Care Providers: Many cities and regions have local hospice and palliative care providers that offer a range of services. These organizations often have interdisciplinary teams consisting of doctors, nurses, social workers, and other professionals who provide palliative care support. You can search for local providers online or ask your healthcare provider for recommendations
  7. Hospice Care:

Medical Disclaimer

NowPatient has taken all reasonable steps to ensure that all material is factually accurate, complete, and current. However, the knowledge and experience of a qualified healthcare professional should always be sought after instead of using the information in this page. Before taking any drug, you should always speak to your doctor or another qualified healthcare provider.

The information provided here about medications is subject to change and is not meant to include all uses, precautions, warnings, directions, drug interactions, allergic reactions, or negative effects. The absence of warnings or other information for a particular medication does not imply that the medication or medication combination is appropriate for all patients or for all possible purposes.

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