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They have one thing in common: Both offer improved quality of life for patients.

Palliative care and hospice care are terms often used together. There’s reason for that — they’re similar, but they have some key differences. Their shared goal: making a patient more comfortable during times of illness. And both types of care help those with chronic or life-threatening conditions and their families. 

Knowing what options are available helps you understand what kind of care you want when and if you need it — or how to support loved ones seeking additional care options.

"Hospice and palliative care both focus on a person’s physical and emotional pain that accompany an illness, but there are some important differences between the two," says Glen Digwood, DO, the medical director of palliative care for Geisinger’s northeastern region.

What is palliative care?

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

"This type of care can help patients 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.”

Palliative care can help people who have conditions like:

  • Cancer
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Dementia
  • Emphysema
  • Kidney disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Stroke

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 as possible when someone is facing a serious illness.

Palliative care doesn’t limit or impact a person receiving treatment to cure an illness. In fact, palliative services work together with curative treatment options.

Another important differentiator from hospice care? A palliative care support team doesn’t replace a person's healthcare team. These support experts partner with healthcare providers to coordinate care.

What is 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 to a person with this limited life expectancy.

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

And because people tend to feel most comfortable at home, it’s a perfect place for hospice care. “Greater than 95% of hospice care is delivered in people’s homes, where care teams are coming to visit them,” says Dr. Digwood.

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, whatever the time line 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 you face a life-threatening diagnosis, talk to your doctor 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: 

Find a hospice and palliative care provider
Avoiding caregiver burnout
When to be concerned about forgetfulness

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