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Palliative Care Physician

Overview

Palliative care specialists focus on relieving the symptoms and stress of serious and chronic illness. The goal of palliative care is to improve the quality of life for the both patient and the family.

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. Patients can receive palliative care at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, and they can receive it alongside curative treatment.

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, 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:

  • Control pain, alleviate psychosocial distress, address spiritual issues and meet practical needs throughout the continuum of care.
  • Improve access to information for patients and families so that they understand the patient’s condition and treatment options.
  • Coordinate care across settings by improving communication among providers, particularly as the patient’s needs change.

In recent years, interest in palliative care has grown significantly. Physicians can now choose to specialize in palliative care. Employment opportunities are also growing as more hospitals start or expand palliative care programs.

Working Conditions

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.

Academic Requirements

In 2006, the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) and the American Osteopathic Association 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 10 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.

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 serious illness.