Palliative Care: what it is and why it matters

By Sophie Lichtenstein, Managing Editor, Beanpicker Yearbook

As modern medicine in our world develops, doctors of all kinds are able to drastically improve patient care in more ways than one. Palliative care, a relatively new field of medicine, specializes in relieving patients of pain at any stage of a serious illness.

Palliative care was first formally established by Canadian oncologist Dr. Balfour Mount in the 1970s but did not gain significant traction within the medical community until the late 90s and early 2000s. The practice of palliative care does not aim to slow or stop disease progression (although it often does), rather ease the patient’s and their family’s physical, spiritual and emotional pain.

Palliative care places equal emphasis on healing psychological and emotional pain as it does physical pain, while most other fields fail to address the less tangible effects of illness. Each patient’s palliative care team typically consists of a doctor, a nurse and a social worker along with any combination of therapists, musicians, dietitians or any other person who provides a service that brings comfort to the patient.

Palliative care is one of the most personal aspects of patient care, addressing the most intimate and unique needs of a patient such as stress, spirituality and death and is necessary to provide the highest standard of care possible for each patient. 

This holistic approach to medicine works. A 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study of 151 metastatic non-small-cell lung cancer patients reported a 2.7 month increase in the median lifespan of those patients who received early palliative care along with their standard oncology treatment. The study also reported that 12 percent less of patients receiving palliative care experienced depressive symptoms.

One might think that the rapid speed of medical advancement decreases the need for palliative care, but it does just the opposite. The current life expectancy of an American is increasing. Our population is aging, and as a result, an increasing percent of the population lives long enough to experience serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, making the need for palliative care more and more significant.

Unfortunately, the importance of palliative care is only just starting to be recognized on a global scale. The first worldwide palliative care resolution was made by the World Health Assembly in 2014 and called for more access to and higher quality of palliative care.

The majority of people who need palliative care are not able to access it. According to the World Health Organization, 40 million people need palliative care each year, and only 14 percent of those people receive it. 78 percent of those 40 million live in low to middle income countries.

These grim statistics, however, are improving as medical schools adopt palliative care education into their curriculum and the number of hospitals that have palliative care programs increases. 80 percent of large hospitals have palliative care programs, and that number gets higher each year.

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