The Role of a Palliative Care Doctor

Many people think palliative care doctors only help people at the end of their life. Decades ago, this was true.

Over the last twenty years, the role of palliative care doctors has expanded. They continue to support and honor people at the end of their lives. But they also care for people who have treatable, and even curable, diseases.

Palliative care doctors can help people after a new diagnosis, for example. They can also help when people are struggling with a new treatment or a new stage of their disease.

The focus of palliative care is a better quality of life, which matters at all stages of an illness.

What does a palliative care doctor do? The better question may be, what don’t they do?

A palliative care doctor treats the whole person to improve their quality of life. They help people manage their disease’s symptoms and their treatment’s side effects. They also address their mental health needs and help with practical issues like navigating home care.

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The Role of a Palliative Care Doctor

Palliative care doctors help people with:

  • Cancer.
  • Heart disease.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Dementia.
  • Respiratory disease.
  • People waiting for an organ transplant.
  • Many other illnesses.

Often, people think that pain is part of their illness or side effects mean treatment is working. But, in many cases, palliative care doctors can reduce pain and side effects without impacting the efficacy of treatments.

Many illnesses and treatments can cause a variety of effects, including:

  • Making it hard to sleep well.
  • Negatively impacting a person’s mood.
  • Nausea and other digestive issues.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Pain.
  • Depression.
  • Fatigue.

A palliative care doctor is an expert in relieving these common symptoms and side effects. They ask the people they treat about symptoms and how these affect their day-to-day lives.

Medicines to help with side effects

A palliative care doctor can prescribe medicine to reduce symptoms and side effects. They can also refer people for treatments like nerve block shots to treat pain. They work with the person’s main doctors to ensure any medicine they prescribe won’t interfere with their main treatment.

Alternative therapies

Palliative care doctors can also suggest evidence-based, non-drug treatments. Herbal supplements or lifestyle or diet changes can often help with symptoms like fatigue and nausea. Plus, they can help people access complementary therapies, like massage or acupuncture.

Emotional support

Palliative care doctors can offer counseling and emotional support to people with mental health issues. They can also connect the people they treat to counselors, spiritual advisors, and social workers in the hospital or the community. They can help people with family, financial, or job troubles and feelings of sadness and fear that can come with an illness.

Community programs

Palliative care doctors can also help connect people to programs. For example, some programs connect people with others with similar health problems or interests. Other programs can help with home care or nutritional support.

What to Expect from A Palliative Care Doctor Visit

The first visit with a palliative care doctor usually takes about an hour. The doctor will ask about symptoms, including sleep quality, mood, pain, and more. Because they don’t focus on treating the main disease, they focus on all the other stuff.

Palliative care doctors ask people about their goals and values, which may affect treatment options. For example, some people prefer nearby treatments, even if they may not work as well as ones further away. Likewise, they would suggest different treatments if reducing pain is the number one focus over higher energy levels.

The palliative care team works closely with the main care team. The palliative care doctor should already have a list of medicines and diagnosis details at the first visit. Sometimes, they meet with other doctors to brainstorm ways to improve symptoms.

Palliative care doctors can prescribe medicines but may also suggest stopping or lowering a treatment dose. For example, if a pain drug causes too much sleepiness, the doctor may suggest a lower dose or another drug.

The palliative care doctor will create a care plan at the end of the first visit. This plan outlines medicine changes, referrals for therapies or programs, and follow-up visits. In most cases, follow-ups are about half an hour.

Palliative Care is a Team Effort, Including the Person and Their Loved Ones

The palliative care doctor works with a team of health care workers. Depending on the illness and treatment location, this team includes:

  • The palliative care doctor.
  • Nurses.
  • Nurse practitioners.
  • Spiritual advisors.
  • Counselors
  • Social workers.
  • The person getting treatment.
  • Their loved ones.

The palliative care doctor can also refer a person to others who can help them. This might be a pain specialist, community program, alternative health care, or home care worker.

They see the person and their loved ones as a part of the team. With the person’s consent, they may bring family members into a meeting. The family can offer perspectives on what their loved one is struggling with and help navigate visits and medicines.

A Palliative Care Doctor Provides Whole Person Care

As medical care has become more complex, health workers can focus on a specific disease, organ, or body system. They can miss the big picture. Palliative care is there to connect all aspects of a person’s care.

A palliative care doctor considers all aspects of a person’s health — physical, social, emotional, and spiritual. They take the time to know what’s most vital to the person at any given time and focus on their needs.

A common belief is that palliative care means stopping life-saving treatments. They do care for people after they decide to stop life-saving therapies. But they can also help people get through complex life-saving or life-prolonging therapies like chemotherapy.

By helping people deal with issues like sleep, anxiety, digestion problems, and pain, palliative care doctors can help a person live life more fully. And that’s why their work is so critical, no matter the person’s diagnosis or where they are in their health care journey.

To speak with someone about palliative care, contact the UPMC Palliative and Supportive Institute at or call 855-565-7146.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

About Palliative and Supportive Institute

At the UPMC Palliative and Supportive Institute, we have one goal: providing the top treatment for patients with serious, life-threatening illnesses. We want you or your loved one to have the highest quality of life, even when a cure is not possible. We will listen to your own wishes for care and build our support around you. We work closely with other UPMC health care professionals to provide complete support and services, both physical and emotional. We want to help you live with dignity and grace in life’s most difficult moments. Visit our website to find a provider near you.