What Is a Palliative Care Physician?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

Palliative care physicians are trained to prevent and ease suffering for people who have serious illnesses or who need end-of-life care.

Most health care providers focus on diagnosing and treating illnesses, but end-of-life care needs a different approach.

People facing the end of their lives may deal with depression and pain, as well as a need for dignity and control. They also tend to be older and may have issues like loneliness. They’re likely to be more sensitive to drugs and have more negative interactions between medications. 

Palliative care physicians are trained to help people manage these physical, psychological, social, and spiritual needs. They work as part of a team and assist people and their families with making decisions related to these illnesses.

Palliative care physicians focus on treating people holistically (in both body and mind) and improving their quality of life by managing pain and other symptoms.  

What Does a Palliative Care Physician Do?

Palliative care physicians focus on providing comfort and improving the quality of life for anyone who has a serious illness. This can happen alongside curative care (aiming to cure the body of its problems).

Palliative care physicians are often involved in hospice care for people in their last months. They often work with a team that may include nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and volunteers. 

Palliative care physicians help with pain and symptom management as well as the stress of illness, such as side effects of treatment and caregiver fatigue.

Education and Training

Palliative care physicians are medical doctors with training in issues surrounding serious illness.

Their educational path typically involves 4 years of medical school and then 3 to 7 years of residency (first-hand experience) in one of the main specialties:

Palliative care physicians then take a board certification exam and do a 1-year fellowship in the subspecialty of hospice and palliative care. They take a subspecialty board certification exam to test their knowledge and are able to begin working as a palliative care physician. 

Reasons to See a Palliative Care Physician

If you have a serious illness such as heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, Parkinson s disease, or Alzheimer s disease, a palliative care physician may be able to help. They may also be useful if you’re facing a need for end-of-life or hospice care.  

You don’t have to wait until an illness has become severe to see a palliative care physician. They may be able to prevent some of the worst symptoms or side effects and improve your quality of life. They’ll also work with your other doctors to help you reach your goals. 

What to Expect From the Palliative Care Physician

When you meet with a palliative care physician, they’ll probably discuss how your care team can help. They’ll talk about your options and what you can expect from treatment. They’ll also answer any questions you may have.

Palliative care is focused on the patient, so you’ll have a say in what you need and how you’re treated. If you want, your family can be included in your care. They may be an important part of your overall care and be crucial to your health and well-being. 

WebMD Medical Reference



American Journal of Managed Care: “Palliative and End-of-Life Care: Issues, Challenges, and Possible Solutions in the United States.”

American Medical Association: “Hospice and Palliative Medicine Specialty Description.” 

Center to Advance Palliative Care: “Five things you can expect from your first palliative care meeting.”

National Institute on Aging: “What Are Palliative Care and Hospice Care?”

The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: “Clinical Challenges to the Delivery of End-of-Life Care.” 

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