Palliative Care Vs. Hospice Care—How They Differ

April 1, 2021
April 1, 2021

As healthcare options, palliative care and hospice care are often mentioned together, which can lead to confusion about what each one entails. As a result, lack of knowledge, especially about palliative care, may hamper “the many benefits of these services for those who most need them” (Boen, 2016).

What Is Palliative Care?

Palliative care is focused on the symptoms of serious illness that occur whole someone is undergoing curative treatment for that illness. It is appropriate “for anyone living with a serious illness, such as heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, dementia, Parkinson's disease, and many others. Palliative care can be helpful at any stage of illness and is best provided from the point of diagnosis” (NIH, 2017). Palliative care addresses quality of life and can be helpful “to any older person having a lot of general discomfort and disability very late in life” (NIH, 2017). Most importantly, palliative care is delivered simultaneously with any curative treatment and is not in any way dependent on diagnosis.”

Palliative care is typically delivered by a multidisciplinary team that works with a patient, his or her family, and other doctors involved in the patient’s care to offer “medical, social, emotional, and practical support” (NIH, 2017). This team may include doctors and nurses who specialize in palliative care, as well as social workers, nutritionists, chaplains, etc., and it may occur in hospitals, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, or at home (HIH, 2017). It is important to remember that palliative care does not require a patient to give up any treatment for a serious illness, and it may transition to hospice care if a doctor determines the patient is likely to die within six months.

What Is Hospice Care?

When it is no longer possible to cure a serious illness or a patient decides to discontinue treatment, a patient may choose to initiate hospice care. Hospice care is appropriate when an “illness is not responding to medical attempts to cure it or to slow the disease's progress” (NIH, 2017). Similar to palliative care, the focus in hospice care is on the patient’s comfort and on support for family members and any involved caregivers. What’s different is that any attempt to cure an illness is stopped. Typically, “Hospice is provided for a person with a terminal illness whose doctor believes he or she has 6 months or less to live if the illness runs its natural course” (HIH, 2017).

Like palliative care, “Hospice care brings together a team of people with special skills—among them nurses, doctors, social workers, spiritual advisors, and trained volunteers. Everyone works together with the person who is dying, the caregiver, and/or the family to provide the medical, emotional, and spiritual support needed” (NIH, 2017). It is provided “in two types of settings—at home or in a facility such as a nursing home, hospital, or even in a separate hospice center” (NIH, 2017). For any hospice patients, regardless of setting, professional assistance is always available by phone or in person.

While staffed by similar multidisciplinary teams of professionals and challenged by recruitment pressures and shortage of qualified candidates like elsewhere in healthcare, The difference in these two areas of care comes down to the place of curative treatment within each. According to the NIH, “It is important to remember that stopping treatment aimed at curing an illness does not mean discontinuing all treatment. A good example is an older person with cancer. If the doctor determines that the cancer is not responding to chemotherapy and the patient chooses to enter into hospice care, then the chemotherapy will stop. Other medical care may continue as long as it is helpful. For example, if the person has high blood pressure, he or she will still get medicine for that” (NIH, 2017).

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Boen, J., “Palliative Care Is Not Just for Hospice Patients: Confusion between it and hospice means some get less care,” nextavenue, July 20, 2016, Retrieved at

NIH/National Instite on Aging, “What Are Palliative Care and Hospice Care?,”Content reviewed: May 17, 2017, Retrieved at