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Understanding care service options

When a loved one is diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening illness, it can be a scary time. You want to offer your relative or friend the best care possible and ensure that they have their symptoms well managed. During this time it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with trying to decide how to support your loved one.

"Hospice and palliative care both focus on an individual’s physical and emotional suffering that accompany an illness, but there are some important differences between the two," explains Dr. Glen Digwood, Geisinger Northeast’s medical director of palliative care.

Palliative care

Palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life for a person at any stage of their illness or at any age.

"People facing cancer, COPD, congestive heart failure, dementia or other advancing illnesses can seek palliative care at the time of diagnosis. This type of care can help individuals manage their symptoms while continuing aggressive medical interventions," says Dr. Digwood. "People deserve to have their symptoms managed well, regardless of whether their disease is curable or not. Whether it’s pain at the end of life, neuropathy from chemotherapy, or shortness of breath from emphysema, we have the ability to do better."

Services offered in palliative care can also help a person’s psychological, social and spiritual needs. The goal is to provide as much physical and emotional relief when someone is facing a serious illness.

Palliative care does not limit or have an impact on a person receiving treatment to cure an illness. Palliative services work together with curative treatment options.

A palliative care support team does not replace a person's healthcare team. These support experts partner with healthcare providers to give coordinated care.

Hospice care

A person is generally eligible for hospice if an illness is life-limiting up to six months. Hospice programs focus on giving the best quality of life for an individual with this limited life expectancy.

Hospice care is given at home, hospitals or hospice centers. A trained staff tends to an individual usually after their family decides to select this type of care service.

Members of a hospice team provide 24/7 support with scheduled visits to assess the person's needs. The team typically consists of nurses, home health aides, social workers, chaplains, therapists and a physician.

Where the two overlap

While hospice and palliative care are two different types of services, they have similarities and can often work together. As the adage goes, all hospice care is palliative, but not all palliative care is hospice. Both programs focus on giving a person the highest quality of life for whatever timeline of their condition or illness.

Hospice care can be a subset of palliative care. A person may receive palliative care when they are first diagnosed.

"When a person's condition progresses or treatments can no longer improve their quality of life, the supportive services may change and include hospice care," says Dr. Digwood.

If a loved one faces a life-threatening diagnosis, consult your physician about care service options.

"Choosing to discuss palliative care support programs can help a person and their family feel better physically and emotionally when navigating a serious, advancing illness," says Dr. Digwood.


Next steps

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Meet Glen Digwood, DO

Family with healthcare team