What Is Palliative Care?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 23, 2024
3 min read

If you’re seriously ill, you may have to manage not just your medical condition but physical, emotional, and practical matters as well. You may be in pain or too tired to get through the day. You and your loved ones may feel overwhelmed by endless decisions to make. A special kind of medicine called palliative care can help.

It also goes by comfort or supportive care. Palliative doctors team up with your regular doctors to focus on symptoms like trouble breathing and stress. Unlike with hospice care, you can receive palliative care at any stage in your disease and continue to get treatments to cure it. Palliative medicine is a whole-person care that gives you an extra layer of support so you and your family can live better.

Any adult or child can get it if they have a serious or ongoing condition, like:

Your team may include doctors, nurses, social workers, dietitians, volunteers, and even spiritual advisers. Its focus is not to treat or cure your disease, but to ease your symptoms and any side effects of treatment. These include:

Your palliative care experts will ask what you may need and want. Maybe you’d like to feel well enough to leave the hospital or to move to the next step in your treatment. Or, you may want to get stronger so you can see your daughter play baseball or attend your son’s wedding. Your team can help you reach those goals.

The team can answer questions about treatment options, help you make decisions, and let your regular doctors know your wishes. You’ll have more control over your overall care this way.

The goals are the same for kids and adults: relieve pain and other symptoms. But children with serious illnesses aren’t mini-adults -- they have their own specific needs. Some kids can’t explain their pain or are too young to talk. Doctors and nurses trained in pediatric palliative medicine can help read your child’s body language to figure out where and how much they hurt.

Your child’s team may also include:

A child life therapist: This specialist helps your child understand her illness and provide a sense of normalcy so they can be a regular kid as much as possible.

Art or music therapists: They work with your child to help them express feelings through art, music, poetry, or other creative outlets.

The team can help you and your child with the emotions that go along with a serious illness. It can help you wade through the important health care decisions you’ll have to make for your child, too.

You don’t have to be dying or have a terminal illness to get palliative care. You can start it as soon as you’re diagnosed. If you get your symptoms under control early, you may be better able to get through the whole treatment.

Hospice focuses on care, not cure. It’s a specific type of palliative medicine for people who usually have 6 months or less to live and who have stopped treatments for their condition.

If you feel palliative medicine might help you, ask for it if it’s not offered. You can receive care at home, in the hospital, nursing home, or an assisted living center.

Many private insurance plans pay for part of palliative medicine. Check with your insurer for specific benefits. This is separate from coverage for hospice care, which is often fully paid. If you have Medicare Part B (the Medicare plan that pays for doctor visits and outpatient care) or Medicaid, you may get some palliative coverage, depending on the treatment.