A Mass General expert explains the advantages of palliative care for patients at any stage of a serious illness.

Palliative care is about living well in the face of serious illness. Much more than simply end-of-life care, it is appropriate at any age, for any diagnosis, at any stage in a serious illness. Here at Massachusetts General Hospital, our palliative care efforts focus on asking patients what is most important to them and then supporting those needs.

In our quest to heal disease, many physicians find it difficult to open these conversations with the patients.

In our quest to heal disease, many physicians find it difficult to open these conversations with the patients. However, by encouraging discussion, and by listening carefully, palliative care can serve as an extra layer of support for a patient and the family at a critical time. We have learned that patients with serious illnesses want to:

• ease pain and other symptoms
• relieve burdens on their family
• find a sense of control
• receive assistance strengthening their relationships with loved ones
• share decision-making with their medical team

The Benefits of Starting Early

The sooner palliative care is included in the patient’s care program, the better the results. Studies show that early palliative care improves quality of life, decreases depression and may even prolong survival.

Although palliative care is often confused with hospice care, they are not the same. Hospice care is an insurance benefit that provides care for those in the last weeks of life. Patients qualify for hospice when they have been given a prognosis of less than six months to live and give up insurance coverage for life-prolonging treatment.

Palliative care is given in conjunction with efforts to cure a disease or prolong a life. It brings together an interdisciplinary team that works with patients, families and other healthcare professionals.

Education Key to Palliative Care

We are one of only a few hospitals in the country to have a truly integrated palliative care model.

Mass General is a leader in palliative care education and research. We are one of only a few hospitals in the country to have a truly integrated palliative care model. Our specially trained team works hard to educate caregivers, patients and families about the value of such care. But education is still needed to ensure patients and clinicians have access to available support.

Studies show 80 percent of patients want to talk to their doctors about what to expect with their illness and plan for the future. However, in our commitment to healing, we, as physicians, too often wait for patients to initiate the conversation. As a result, these conversations rarely happen.

Philanthropy is critical because it gives clinicians the time needed for these often difficult discussions. But the investment has been shown to pay off with fewer hospital admissions and decreased stress on the patient and family.

Embedding Palliative Care Specialists

With the support of private philanthropy, Mass General has established fellowships for physicians and nurse practitioners in palliative care. These fellowships embed palliative care specialists throughout the hospital, providing education and support for patients, as well as physicians, nurses and other caregivers.

Our goal is to ensure that all our patients receive appropriate care at the appropriate time.

Under the visionary leadership of Peter Slavin, MD, MGH president, the hospital convened a task force that developed several strategies to improve care for patients living with a serious illness. Their findings included expanding education, patient engagement and advance care planning along with the creation of an operational team.

Our goal is to ensure that all our patients receive appropriate care at the appropriate time.

Please make a gift in support of palliative care at Mass General.  To learn more about our program, please contact us.

Vicki Jackson, MD, MPH - Palliative Care specialist
Vicki Jackson. MD, MPH, is the chief of the Division of Palliative Care at Massachusetts General Hospital, co-director of the Harvard Center for Palliative Care and associate professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.