Palliative care is a healthcare approach that aims to provide comfort and improve the quality of life of people diagnosed with a serious or life-threatening disease such as cancer, heart failure or Parkinson’s.
Beyond symptom management, palliative care involves the coordinated effort of a group of professionals, including social workers, therapists, nutritionists and spiritual leaders. This team provides patients and their loved ones with the resources and guidance to manage the physical, emotional and spiritual burdens of the disease.
Read on to learn more about palliative care and its benefits.
Table of contents
- Definition of palliative care
- What is included in palliative care?
- Types of palliative care
- Who needs palliative care?
- Where to get palliative care
- Does Medicare cover palliative care?
- How to get palliative care
- What is Palliative Care? FAQs
Definition of palliative care
Palliative care is a treatment strategy that helps patients manage the symptoms, stress and discomfort of a serious illness. It also supports the patient’s family or caretakers in an effort to improve the quality of life of all involved.
Administered by a team of palliative care providers, this care extends beyond medical treatment to encompass physical, psychological and spiritual support. This approach is beneficial for a patient's overall well-being because it alleviates symptoms such as nausea, fatigue or difficulty breathing. It also teaches them how to cope with depression, anxiety or other illness side effects.
While palliative care shares similarities with hospice care, they are not the same. Anyone diagnosed with a serious illness can receive palliative care, whereas hospice care seeks to offer comfort and support to people nearing the end of life and their loved ones.
What is included in palliative care?
Palliative care specialists offer patients symptom relief, social support, education and care planning. These services supplement the patient’s primary treatment to help them and their family navigate the added care needs and responsibilities of managing a serious illness.
Physicians and nurses can answer questions about treatment and offer advice on how to manage symptoms such as pain, nausea, vomiting, constipation, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Palliative care also includes assistance from social workers, therapists or spiritual advisors to help manage anxiety or depression. These services may also be available to caretakers or family members who may have concerns or questions about treatment.
As managing a serious illness can put a strain on both patients and caregivers, palliative care also helps patients create and manage a support system. A palliative care team can refer a patient to support groups or other community resources where patients can meet others facing similar challenges.
Support groups in particular provide a space where patients can receive emotional support, share experiences and exchange strategies for coping with their particular illness and its side effects.
Palliative care specialists connect patients with groups or programs that teach them more about their condition and the resources available to them. That knowledge gives patients a sense of control over their care; it can help them manage their current symptoms and understand how the illness will develop over time.
Through care planning, patients and their physicians collaboratively develop a long-term care plan that aligns with the patient’s preferences regarding treatment options, care settings and length of care.
Care planning may include spiritual guidance from a chaplain or other spiritual leader who can offer support or advice on how to handle the spiritual concerns that arise from having a serious illness. Patients can also be referred to financial advisors to help them plan and manage the costs of care not covered by insurance or Medicare.
Types of palliative care
Palliative care encompasses three aspects: physical, psychological and spiritual care.
- Physical care encompasses pain and symptom management. To alleviate and manage pain, physicians may prescribe medication or treatments such as massage or physical therapy. Patients may also be referred to a nutritionist who can help them create a diet plan to address their symptoms.
- Psychological care helps individuals navigate the psychological and emotional challenges of managing a disease. Treatment includes therapy and social work geared towards helping the patient and their family manage stress and develop mental health coping skills. Mental health professionals may also encourage the patient to attend group therapy, where they can meet others going through similar situations.
- Spiritual care focuses on offering the patient spiritual support, be it religious or secular. This support can involve helping people explore their values and concerns through attentive listening or guiding them through meditation or prayer.
Who needs palliative care?
Palliative care is for any individual facing serious, chronic or life-threatening illnesses, regardless of their age or the stage of their disease. Patients who need palliative care may be experiencing symptoms such as pain, discomfort or stress.
Where to get palliative care
Patients can receive palliative care at a hospital, nursing home, outpatient clinic, assisted living facility and even at home. However, care settings may also depend on the resources available in that person’s community and what their insurance, Medicare or Medicaid cover.
Does Medicare cover palliative care?
Medicare covers palliative care services individually, but not as a single service under the umbrella term “palliative care.”
Palliative care services generally fall under Medicare Part B. This includes coverage for medical equipment and supplies as well as counseling, physical therapy, social work and dietary management. Other palliative care services covered by Medicare include doctor and nursing services (under Part A) and prescription drugs for symptom management and pain relief (under Part D).
However, treatment options such as massage therapy or at-home custodial care (where the patient receives assistance with daily activities such as eating, bathing and dressing) are not covered. If you’re seeking coverage for this type of care, we suggest you look into long-term care insurance.
To learn more about what is covered in your area, consult your doctor and check Medicare coverage details for your state.
How long will Medicare cover palliative care?
The length of non-hospice palliative care under Medicare will depend on the person’s treatment and care needs, as Medicare coverage benefits don’t run out.
As mentioned above, Medicare doesn’t cover palliative care as one service. Instead, individual care services may be covered under Part A, B, or D of Medicare. This means coverage details vary depending on the part of Medicare that covers each service.
- Under Medicare Part A (doctor and nursing services), patients have to pay a deductible each benefit period for inpatient services along with a daily coinsurance after 60 days.
- Medicare Part B (counseling, physical therapy and social work) covers 80% of services (with 20% coinsurance), but only after patients meet the annual $240 deductible.
- Prescription drug rules under Medicare Part D also require that patients meet an annual deductible before transitioning to standard copays.
For patients enrolled in Medicare Advantage, coverage and out-of-pocket costs will depend on the terms of their plan.
How to get palliative care
A good first step if you’re considering palliative care is to talk to your doctor, as you’ll likely need a referral for the different services this type of care comprises.
Make sure you understand your illness and the curative treatments available to you. This can help you design a care approach that aligns with your values, beliefs and the quality of life you’d like to have.
In this process, you should also start discussing future care planning with both your physician and loved ones. Once you’ve settled on a care approach, contact providers in your area to schedule an appointment.
What is Palliative Care? FAQs
What is the difference between palliative care and hospice?
On the other hand, hospice covers end-of-life care when the patient and/or family have decided to forgo further treatment to slow or cure the disease. The main goal of hospice care is to make the person comfortable.
Is palliative care covered by Medicare?
How much does palliative care cost per day?
To learn more about costs, ask your doctor about the services available in your area. Then, contact your insurance company or Medicare to find out if the services are covered and how much of the costs, if any, you’ll have to pay.
Who qualifies for palliative care?
Summary of Money’s What is Palliative Care?
Palliative care is a form of comprehensive care for people with a disease such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or heart failure. This type of treatment approach includes physical, psychological and spiritual care to help patients and their families manage the symptoms and stress brought on by the illness.
Patients can receive palliative care in hospitals, nursing homes, care facilities, inpatient clinics or at home. However, the cost of care will depend on what their insurance plan will cover. Medicare recipients receive coverage for palliative care under standard Medicare guidelines but as separate components rather than a comprehensive service.