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What are palliative care and end of life care?

You may come across the terms palliative care or end of life care and feel you don’t know much about them. People often find these terms confusing. This page provides a definition of these terms and how this type of treatment can help.

If you're a healthcare professional or commissioner looking for more information, visit the Commissioning our services page.

On this page:

What is palliative care?

If you’ve been told you may not get better, you might also have heard about palliative care. Palliative care is for people living with a terminal illness where a cure is no longer possible. It's not just for people diagnosed with terminal cancer, but any terminal condition. It’s also for people who have a complex illness and need their symptoms controlled. Although these people usually have an advanced, progressive condition, this isn’t always the case.

Palliative care aims to treat or manage pain and other physical symptoms. It will also help with any psychological, social or spiritual needs. Treatment will involve medicines, therapies, and any other support that specialist teams believe will help their patients. It includes caring for people who are nearing the end of life. This is called end of life care.

The goal is to help you and everyone affected by your diagnosis to achieve the best quality of life. You might receive palliative care alongside particular treatments, therapies and medicines, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Palliative care:

  • improves quality of life
  • gives relief from pain and other distressing symptoms
  • supports life and keeping people as healthy as possible, regarding dying as a normal process
  • doesn’t quicken or postpone death
  • combines psychological and spiritual aspects of care
  • offers a support system to help people live as actively as possible until death
  • offers a support system to help the family cope during a person’s treatment and in bereavement
  • uses a team approach to address the needs of the person who is ill and their families
  • also applies to the earlier stages of illness, alongside other therapies that are aimed at prolonging life 
  • can take place in hospitals, hospices but also in people’s homes.

More information on how we can help you or a loved one living with a terminal illness.

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What is end of life care?

End of life care is an important part of palliative care for people who are nearing the end of life. End of life care is for people who are considered to be in the last year of life, but this timeframe can be difficult to predict.

End of life care aims to help people live as well as possible and to die with dignity. It also refers to treatment during this time and can include additional support, such as help with legal matters. End of life care continues for as long as you need it.

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Who provides palliative care?

The professionals who provide this care fall into two main groups:

1. General care

Those who give day-to-day care to patients with advanced illness and their family and friends, such as your GP, community nurses or Marie Curie Nurses.

2. Specialist care

Experts in palliative care, such as consultants in palliative medicine or clinical nurse specialists.

You’re likely to need both general and specialist care as your needs change. Palliative care can be provided in different places including in your home, in hospital, at a care home or a hospice, such as the hospices we offer.

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General care

Providing general palliative care is part of many health and social care professionals’ jobs. You might see these people regularly as part of your clincal treatment:

  • your GP
  • community nurses
  • social workers
  • care workers
  • spiritual care professionals

These professionals should be able to assess your care needs, and those of your family and friends. They should meet those needs where possible and know when to seek specialist advice. The aim of general palliative care is to provide:

  • information for you and your family or friends, and signposting to other services
  • accurate and all-round assessment of your needs
  • coordination of carer teams in and out of hours
  • basic levels of symptom and pain control
  • psychological, social, spiritual and practical support
  • good communication with you, your family or friends and the professionals supporting you

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Specialist care

Specialist palliative care services manage more complex patient care problems that cannot be dealt with by generalist services. Specialists usually work in teams to offer joined-up care and you might see one or more specialists when you’re referred. Specialist teams include:

  • doctors and nurses
  • counsellors
  • specialist allied health professionals, such as physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians and social workers

Specialist palliative care services may be provided by the NHS (local health and social care trust in Northern Ireland), local councils and voluntary organisations. These could include inpatient and outpatient facilities and bereavement support services for relatives of patients.

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Common myths about palliative care

Palliative care is often misunderstood and some people believe things about it that aren’t true.

MYTH: If I need palliative care it means I’ll have to go to a hospice
You can receive palliative care in a range of settings including in your home, in hospital, in a care home or a hospice and can be offered by the NHS.

MYTH: If I have palliative care it means my doctors have given up and I’ll no longer receive active treatment for my illness
You can receive palliative care alongside active treatments for your illness, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

MYTH: If I have palliative care I’ll no longer be seen by other specialists who know about my particular disease
You can receive support alongside treatment from the clinicians who have been treating your particular illness.

MYTH: Palliative care is just about treating pain and other physical symptoms
It aims to give a holistic approach to give you the best quality of life possible. This means caring for all your physical, emotional, psychological, social and other needs.

MYTH: Only people who are ill or dying can benefit from palliative care
Palliative care teams are very aware that caring for someone with an advanced illness can have a big impact on family members and friends. They do what they can to help people cope.

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I want for nothing at this hospice. The staff give me all the medication I need and plenty of emotional support. They shower me because I get too breathless to do it myself. And they’re always throwing tea and biscuits at me – not literally, mind! 
Sylvia, person with a terminal illness

External websites

Carers UK   – support and resources for carers

NHS Inform   – palliative care zone

NHS Scotland   – palliative care guidelines

NHS Wales   – palliative care

DHSSPS Northern Ireland   – health and social care 

NI Direct   – residential care and nursing homes

PallCare   – palliative care in Northern Ireland

EAPC   – European Association for Palliative Care

If you have further questions about the information on this page and would like to find out more about palliative care, contact your district nurse, Marie Curie Nurse or health professional.

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