I often hear the terms “palliative care” and “hospice” used interchangeably. Both specialized medical-care options help enhance the quality of life for patients with chronic disease or terminal illness, but they differ in significant ways.
Palliative care is a curative option for any stage of illness, whereas hospice is an end-of-life option that seeks to make terminally ill patients as comfortable as possible in their final months.
Palliative and Hospice Care Comparison
Pain management and emotional and spiritual care intended for people at any stage of severe illness.
Can last for a long period with life-saving medication and treatment.
Requirement: chronic or acute condition for severe illness.
Used to enhance quality of life and help patients live comfortably during the course of treatment.
Overseen by primary-care physician.
Not always covered by Medicare.
End-of-life care for terminally ill patients who have six months or less to live.
Patient agrees not to have their illness cured or treated during the duration of the hospice period.
Provides respite care for caregivers and helps patients live comfortably during their final stages.
Overseen by a hospice-care team, including nurses and doctors.
In most cases, covered completely by Medicare.
What Is Palliative Care?
According to the National Institute on Aging, palliative care is a specialized form of medical care intended for individuals living with a serious illness. People seeking palliative care can receive it at any stage of their illness, helping to ease symptoms and work toward treating the illness.
Palliative care offers comfort and pain management, and it enhances quality of life for patients. This type of care is beneficial for patients with chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, AIDS, or Alzheimer’s. Individuals can choose palliative care at home, hospitals, clinics, or nursing homes.
Palliative care typically is provided by a compassionate team: your primary-care doctor, nurses, social workers, and other health-care professionals who specialize in palliative medicine.
Hospice care is for individuals whose doctors can certify that they have a terminal illness and have six months or fewer to live. Like palliative care, hospice care provides pain management, comfort, and emotional and spiritual support for patients who do not seek further treatment for their illness. A hospice setting can differ depending on the level of care and the attention a patient is seeking.
With assistance from Medicare, patients can choose in-home care from hospice staff ranging from nurses to spiritual guides. People who need 24/7 care may benefit from what is known as continuous care, which provides around-the-clock assistance from trained hospice staff.
Other options include in-patient hospice and respite care, which offers relief to caregivers who care for hospice patients. Unlike palliative care, hospice care is specialty care in which the patient agrees to end any treatments or cures. The goal is to provide a peaceful and comfortable end-of-life experience for the terminally ill.
Deciding Between Palliative and Hospice Care
Palliative and hospice care are both designed to provide pain management and support to chronically or terminally ill patients. Here’s a hypothetical scenario to help you make informed decisions about whether palliative or hospice care is right for you:
Hospice vs. Palliative Care: Making the Decision
Anna is a terminally ill cancer patient whose doctor has certified that she has six months or fewer to live. Seeking hospice care is an important decision Anna would like to make. She does not want to continue chemotherapy and other medical treatments because it’s hard on her both physically and mentally.
During her final six months, Anna just wants to be surrounded by compassionate care and loved ones in a hospice setting featuring nurses, doctors, and a trained hospice team. Anna sought palliative care for her cancer diagnosis for many years to manage her pain and other symptoms. She was optimistic about getting better and finding curative treatment, but she relapsed and her cancer diagnosis took a turn for the worse. Anna has decided to forgo further treatment, and she is looking to hospice care for end-of-life support for both herself and her family.
FYI: Medicare won’t cover everything when it comes to cancer treatment. Read about the best Medigap for cancer to learn how to cover costs that fall through the cracks.
Coverage for Hospice and Palliative Care
According to this report, Medicare is the “largest payer of hospice services, covering more than 90 percent of hospice patient days in 2016.” Medicare covers the cost of hospice care and you will need to pay only a copayment and other Medicare-approved amounts for inpatient respite care. Most private insurance companies also provide some coverage for hospice care, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs covers hospice care for qualified veterans who have six months or fewer to live.
In certain cases, palliative care may be covered through private insurance plans, Medicaid, Medicare, and Medicare Advantage plans, but it’s important to check with your health-care provider and primary-care physician for more information regarding costs and coverage. Medicare Part A and Part B, for instance, cover palliative care for people with a terminal illness.
Seeking compassionate care during your health journey is important. Whether you’re more comfortable in a hospital setting or you prefer trying the curative and palliative route, being informed about your health-care options is empowering. If you’re thinking about hospice care, you may also want to check out my guide to estate planning and guide to elder law.
Wherever you are on your health journey, we hope you are able to come away with a better idea of the benefits of palliative care or hospice care for you or your loved ones.