Understanding the Differences Between Hospice and Palliative Care

Sponsored by: Roper St. Francis Healthcare

When it comes to helping people understand the role of a palliative care doctor, Dr. Beth Wolf describes it as simply as she can: the palliative care team provides an extra layer of support while a patient is going through a significant illness.

Many people aren’t clear on the difference between palliative care and hospice care. Imagine a big circle labeled “palliative care” and inside that circle is a smaller circle labeled “hospice” says Wolf, a doctor affiliated with Roper St. Francis Palliative Medicine Services. It’s an image she uses to illustrate the fact that all hospice care is palliative care, but not all palliative care is hospice care.

Palliative Care

"Palliative is a philosophy of care focused on potentially life-threatening and life-limiting conditions, and it’s patient- and family-centered,” Wolf says. “The focus is on the relief of symptoms – pain, stress, whatever is associated with a serious illness. The primary objective is to improve the quality of life, and the patient gets to decide what that looks like.”

Palliative care can also alleviate the symptoms of shortness of breath, depression, constipation, fatigue, nausea, sleep problems, loss of appetite and anxiety.

Who qualifies for palliative care?

  • A patient of any age suffering from a life-limiting or life-threatening symptom or disorder.
  • A patient who is being admitted to the hospital frequently.
  • Patients experiencing a decline in function, such as the inability to bathe or dress themselves.
  • Patients with advanced cancers or those experiencing significant weight loss.

Hospice Care

Hospice, while it has a similar philosophy of care, is focused on those patients whose prognosis is more serious and aren’t expected to live beyond six months. Those patients receive in-home and custodial care, including nurse visits, a social worker and a chaplain. They also typically forego their right to continued treatments, such as experimental treatments.

Wolf notes that patients can be discharged from hospice if their condition improves, or they can revoke their hospice care if they decide to pursue new treatment options.

Be Open About Your Wishes

These decisions aren’t easy, and Wolf recommends having conversations about end-of-life options before the need arises. Talk about your wishes for advanced care before you get sick, she says. Pick someone in your family to make those decisions and create a healthcare power of attorney.

If a patient doesn’t have a healthcare power of attorney, decision-making power defaults to a spouse first and then to living parents or adult children second, Wolf says. Talk to your family and make sure you’ve expressed your wishes.

While you can’t possibly foresee every scenario, families can discuss whether they want to be on life support, where they want to live and the kind of quality of life they desire.

"Whoever is going to be the decision-maker, express to them what’s important to you,” Wolf says.

Facing a serious illness is difficult, but it’s reassuring to know the experts at Roper St. Francis Healthcare are here for you. To learn more about all of the healthcare services Roper St. Francis provides, call (843) 402-CARE (2273) or visit online at rsfh.com.