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Understanding Hospice

What is hospice?
There is often much confusion between the terms hospice and palliative care because both types of care have very similar goals. Palliative care is a form of medical treatment that concentrates on reducing the severity of the symptoms of the disease or illness – it is not curative treatment. The goal of palliative care then is to prevent and relieve suffering and improve the quality of life for the patient, irrespective of whether the patient is expected to fully recover, live with chronic illness for an extended time or experience disease progression. Hospice care is palliative care delivered to those at the end of life.

"More and more families are becoming aware of the importance of hospice through personal experience." – J. Donald Schumacher, president of the National Hospice Foundation

The need for hospice care continues to grow as our population ages. More than 1.4 million people were serviced by the country's 4,700 hospices in 2007. According to J. Donald Schumacher, National Hospice Foundation president, "More and more families are becoming aware of the importance of hospice through personal experience. Learning about care from the experience of family, friends, neighbors or co-workers is becoming increasingly common."

When is hospice necessary?
Hospice care is needed when the patient's illness no longer responds to aggressive treatment in order to affect a cure. Then the emphasis will shift from providing curative treatment to providing comfort to the patient through to the end of life. Hospice is centered on treating the symptoms caused by the illness, rather than the illness itself, with the goal of helping the patient remain as comfortable as possible. Sometimes, patients and their families might wish to request hospice services earlier in order to get the greatest benefit through the emotional support hospice professionals provide. This can include a host of things, however, hospice has three main goals for the patient and his or her family:

  • Pain and symptom management
  • Emotional support
  • Spiritual support

Many hospice services are provided by volunteers. Last year, the typical volunteer devoted an average of 45.1 hours over the course of the year for patient care, according to the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). In addition, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services reported the average length of stay has been steadily increasing to a national average of 67 days. In some areas though, such as Mississippi, Alabama and Oklahoma, hospice stays are even longer: 122, 113 and 108 days respectively.

What hospice does not do
Hospice care does not prolong life, nor does it hasten death, which is a common misunderstanding. Just as doctors and midwives lend support and expertise during the process of birth, hospice care is present to provide its expertise to the patient and his or her family during the process of death. While this is never an easy thing to deal with, it is a natural part of life, and its goal is to make that journey as peaceful and as painless as possible for everyone involved.