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Is Palliative Care Only Pain Management?

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Palliative Care

The COVID pandemic has shown how palliative care can also be valuable for managing the pain and stress of illness.

Palliative care can give relief to those with severe, but not necessarily life-ending, health conditions. However, frequently patients and their physicians fails to understand that they can take use a team-based treatment approach that may include social workers and community support, says Next Avenue’s recent article entitled “Palliative Care is Not Just for the Dying.”

“The big misconception about palliative care in general is that you need to be dying to get it,” said Dr. Andrew Esch, a palliative care specialist and consultant for the Center to Advance Palliative Care (CAPC) in Tampa, Florida.

The pandemic has helped counter that view, Esch and others told Next Avenue. Doctors now realize the benefits to people living with COVID-19 and their families. A palliative care team tries to take a holistic view of the patient’s world, instead of focusing solely on treating the primary condition.

Note that you do not have to be imminently dying to get palliative services. Receiving palliative services does not mean that you are somehow giving up on treating an illness. Instead, people with cancer, for example, can rely on the symptom-based approach of palliative care to build their strength, so they are better able to withstand chemotherapy. Those with conditions like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease can also benefit, as can those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Palliative care is “really appropriate for anybody with a diagnosis of a serious illness, regardless of prognosis,” said Brynn Bowman, CAPC’s chief executive officer. Most insurance plans cover palliative care, just as they would any other specialist service. CAPC manages a website that can help patients find palliative care providers by ZIP code.

“What palliative care aims to do is provide relief from the symptoms and stress of the illness,” Bowman said. That may include managing pain and other symptoms, supporting the family, or helping people match their treatment options to their goals. The objective is to improve the quality of life for patients and families. Palliative care is based on need, not prognosis, and the earlier the team gets involved, the better.

The COVID-19 pandemic has boosted the need for palliative care and shifted medicine in ways that are likely to bring the specialty to the forefront, practitioners said. The complex nature of the disease and its effects on family members and caregivers make COVID-19 a perfect example of why such care is essential.

A palliative care approach helps with the “brain fog” many people experience after spending time in an intensive-care unit, as well as the “lingering malaise” many COVID sufferers report. The general malaise brought about by the pandemic has also brought palliative care into focus, Esch said.

“There’s almost a parallel epidemic of a mental health crisis right now,” and people with underlying conditions are seeing their symptoms exacerbated by stress even if they have not contracted the virus themselves, he said, adding, “There’s a lot of suffering right now, and that’s really the intersection we sit in.”

“COVID has helped both providers and patients really focus on the need to think about what’s most important to them, where they want to get their medical care, and how,” said Dr. Kim Bower, of San Diego, Calif., medical director of the palliative care program at Blue Shield of California.

Reference: Next Avenue (Feb. 21, 2022) “Palliative Care is Not Just for the Dying”

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