Differences Between Hospice Care, Palliative Care and Comfort Care

A hospice nurse discussing hospice care, palliative care and comfort care options with a patient

Written by Amedisys

If you or a loved one are facing a terminal diagnosis or a serious illness, you may have heard the terms hospice care, palliative care and comfort care as possible approaches to treatment. Sometimes these types of care can be confused with each other, especially when the wording seems interchangeable. There are some differences, however. Let’s consider each one, what they mean and how they may be used to help with your diagnosis.

What is hospice care?

Hospice care may be offered to you if you have a terminal diagnosis and a physician certifies that your likely prognosis is 6 months or less. This type of care is not intended to cure a disease, but instead helps improve quality of life, increase comfort, support patients and families through any questions they have and offer emotional, psychosocial and spiritual support at the end of life.

Hospice care is delivered wherever a patient calls home, with regular visits from a hospice team. It is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and many private insurance plans.

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What is palliative care?

Palliative care is not only for patients with a terminal diagnosis. Because it can be started at any stage of a diagnosis of a serious illness, it focuses on improving quality of life by managing pain and other symptoms, and on coordinating your care so that your important goals and wishes for treatment are met.

Palliative care is ideal for those who have been diagnosed with any serious, chronic condition, and introducing it early is best. If your treatment goal is to cure or improve the condition, your palliative care team will meet with you regularly and coordinate with your healthcare team to meet those goals. If you have decided not to continue curative treatments and accept hospice for end-of-life care, goals will include increased emphasis on comfort care measures.

What is comfort care?

You may hear the words “comfort care” to describe treatment for symptoms that are part of your diagnosis and cause discomfort or pain. Comfort care is one of the goals of both hospice and palliative care. It is focused on relieving symptoms that decrease quality of life, whether you have a long-term serious illness or are nearing the end of life. Comfort care includes treatments that help with:

  • Pain control
  • Breathing discomfort
  • Skin irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Digestive problems, such as nausea and vomiting
  • Temperature sensitivity

How comfort care is used in hospice and palliative care

It is common for symptoms that cause physical discomfort to increase during a life-limiting illness, especially when a person is nearing the end of life. Comfort care is a special focus on improving these physical symptoms whether a person is part of a palliative care program or enrolled in hospice care.

When a patient is receiving hospice care, comfort care is the focus of treatment. For a hospice patient, comfort care may look like:

  • Stopping medications that aren’t relieving symptoms or may be causing unwanted side effects
  • Increasing doses of medications for pain, nausea and other problems
  • Avoiding uncomfortable procedures like needle sticks or blood draws
  • Avoiding therapies and testing that interfere with rest
  • Helping a patient with breathing and relaxation techniques that relieve discomfort and anxiety

Patients who are receiving palliative care may also have comfort care as part of their treatment. The long-term intent is keeping a person comfortable for as long as possible whether they have a terminal diagnosis or not. Your palliative care team can help you balance your need for comfort measures with any ongoing medical care designed to cure or treat your condition.

In addition to comfort care, palliative care and hospice teams offer emotional, psychosocial, and spiritual support and education to help patients improve their quality of life.

What are the differences between hospice care and palliative care, and comfort care?

If your doctor or healthcare team has suggested that you would benefit from comfort care, the main thing to remember is that it provides pain and symptom relief. Palliative care supports curative medical treatment where hospice care prioritizes comfort care as the main treatment focus.

You may hear both palliative care and hospice care called “comfort care”. This is simply because both approaches offer comfort care as part of the treatment plan for patients struggling with pain and symptom management, especially at the end of life.

Is hospice, palliative care or comfort care right for you?

A serious or life-limiting diagnosis can be very overwhelming. You may have many questions about the best treatment for your condition. Often, your symptoms and treatment needs can change rapidly.

If you are concerned about your quality of life and controlling symptoms that interfere with your ability to enjoy life, your doctor can help you decide whether palliative care or hospice care is appropriate for you. They can walk you through the signs that it’s time for hospice, and whether your plan of care should include a focus on comfort care.

Amedisys can support you with palliative care and hospice care, including comfort care, right in your own home. For help in considering care personalized to you, our local care centers can talk to you about available options.

Is hospice care the answer?

Is a loved one facing a terminal condition