What is palliative care and what’s new in practicing this type of medicine?


There are still misperceptions of palliative medicine, including when to consider referral to a palliative care specialist.

The World Health Organization defines palliative care as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients (adults and children) and their families who are facing problems associated with life-threatening illness. It prevents and relieves suffering through the early identification, correct assessment, and treatment of pain and other problems, whether physical, psychosocial or spiritual.”1

Gina Kang, MD, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Gina Kang

The common misperception is that palliative care is only for those at end of life or only in the advanced stages of their illness. However, palliative care is ideally most helpful following individuals from diagnosis through their illness trajectory. Another misperception is that palliative care and hospice are the same thing. Though all hospice is palliative care, all palliative care is not hospice. Both palliative care and hospice provide care for individuals facing a serious illness and focus on the same philosophy of care, but palliative care can be initiated at any stage of illness, even if the goal is to pursue curative and life-prolonging therapies/interventions.

In contrast, hospice is considered for those who are at the end of life and are usually not pursuing life-prolonging therapies or interventions, instead focusing on comfort, symptom management, and optimization of quality of life.

Though there is a growing need for palliative care, there is a shortage of specialist palliative care providers. Much of the palliative care needs can be met by all providers who can offer basic symptom management, identification surrounding goals of care and discussions of advance care planning, and understanding of illness/prognosis and treatment options, which is called primary palliative care.2 In fact, two-thirds of patients with a serious illness other than cancer prefer discussion of end-of-life care or advance care planning with their primary care providers.3

Referral to specialty palliative care should be considered when there are more complexities to symptom/pain management and goals of care/end of life, transition to hospice, or complex communication dynamics.4

Though specialty palliative care was shown to be more comprehensive, both primary palliative care and specialty palliative care have led to improvements in the quality of life in individuals living with serious illness.5 Early integration of palliative care into routine care has been shown to improve symptom burden, mood, quality of life, survival, and health care costs.6

Updates in alternative and complementary therapies to palliative care

There are several alternative and complementary therapies to palliative care, including cannabis and psychedelics. These therapies are becoming or may become a familiar part of medical therapies that are listed in a patient’s history as part of their medical regimen, especially as more states continue to legalize and/or decriminalize the use of these alternative therapies for recreational or medicinal use.

Both cannabis and psychedelics have a longstanding history of therapeutic and holistic use. Cannabis has been used to manage symptoms such as pain since the 16th and 17th century.7 In palliative care, more patients may turn to various forms of cannabis as a source of relief from symptoms and suffering as their focus shifts more to quality of life.

Even with the increasing popularity of the use of cannabis among seriously ill patients, there is still a lack of evidence of the benefits of medical cannabis use in palliative care, and there is a lack of standardization of type of cannabis used and state regulations regarding their use.7

A recent systematic review found that despite the reported positive treatment effects of cannabis in palliative care, the results of the studies were conflicting. This highlights the need for further high-quality research to determine whether cannabis products are an effective treatment in palliative care patients.8

One limitation to note is that the majority of the included studies focused on cannabis use in patients with cancer for cancer-related symptoms. Few studies included patients with other serious conditions.


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