Palliative Care Physician
Palliative care specialists focus on relieving the pain and other debilitating symptoms of serious and chronic illness. The goal of palliative care is to improve functioning, enhance decision-making and promote optimal quality of life.
Many people associate palliative care with hospice care. However, they are not the same. Hospice care provides pain management and support services for patients at the end of life, who are no longer seeking curative treatment. While hospice care includes palliative care, a patient does not have to be at the end of life to receive non-hospice palliative care.
Palliative care physicians work with patients and their families to identify and alleviate physical and emotional pain and other symptoms associated with a serious health condition. In addition to providing expert symptom management, palliative care specialists devote their time to intensive family meetings and patient/family counseling, ensure coordinated care across health care settings, link patients and family members to support groups and other services and improve access to information so patients can make confident, well-informed decisions about their care.
Palliative care physicians work within an interdisciplinary team that typically includes nurses and social workers. Chaplains, massage therapists, pharmacists, nutritionists and others may also be part of the team. The team’s goals, according to the National Consensus Project for Quality Palliative Care, are to:
In recent years, interest in palliative care has grown significantly. Physicians can now choose to specialize in palliative care by meeting certain standards and passing an examination. Employment opportunities are also growing as more hospitals start or expand palliative care programs.
Palliative care physicians treat people of all ages who are facing serious and life-threatening illness. They work with patients and their families to identify sources of pain or other suffering, help establish goals of care and develop comprehensive care plans.
Palliative care physicians work in consultation with the patient’s primary physician, as well as with hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospice centers. Patients typically receive palliative care in the hospital, but palliative care specialists may also provide care in a private practice office setting, outpatient clinic or even in a patient’s home.
Additional roles of the palliative care physician may include overseeing the palliative care team, training other health care professionals and engaging in other activities designed to increase awareness of and access to palliative care services.
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In 2006, the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) recognized palliative care as a medical subspecialty. As a result, physicians can become board certified in hospice and palliative medicine by passing the ABMS examination.
To become a palliative care physician, you must first earn a medical degree and complete a residency in one of ten specialties: family medicine, internal medicine, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, physical medicine and rehabilitation, anesthesiology, psychiatry and neurology, radiology or surgery. After residency, you can work towards certification by completing a one-year palliative medicine fellowship accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME).
Palliative care physicians work with seriously ill patients and their families. They need exceptional communication skills, as well as an understanding of the special needs of patients facing complex, life-threatening illness.
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Last updated: February 26, 2015
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