Many people, including those in the medical community, mistakenly think that palliative care is just for the dying.

Palliative care, in fact, is helpful at any time during the course of a serious illness. It is not necessarily terminal care when nothing more can be done, but rather it can be about helping people improve their quality of life. It helps patients feel better, its helps manage the side effects from treatments, and it helps patients and their families better manage their emotional distress.

Palliative care physicians focus on pain relief for patients whether they are terminally ill, expected to recover, or have a chronic disease. The benefits of palliative care include fewer trips to the hospital, improved function, greater enjoyment of life and, for those who are terminally ill, prolonged survival.

Few doctors are trained in palliative care and it is still not routinely taught to medical students or residents. Many older doctors still mistakenly perceive it as end-of-life care only. As a result, it is not readily prescribed for patients who are continuing treatment for their diseases and could benefit from it.

In fact, one recent study found that 70 percent of respondents were “not at all knowledgeable” about palliative care. Yet, once informed, a similar percentage said it was “very important for patients with serious illnesses to have access to palliative care at all hospitals.”

It is appropriate at any age and during any stage of a serious illness, for both inpatients and outpatients. Patients who enter a hospital for treatment should find out beforehand if there is a palliative care team in the facility.

Palliative care treats people suffering from such serious and chronic illnesses as cancer, cardiac disease, kidney failure, COPD, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. It focuses on symptoms like pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, sleeping disorders and depression.

In short, it helps people gain the strength to carry on with their daily lives. It also helps people better tolerate their medical treatments and it improves the life of their caregivers. Palliative care does not just treat the patient’s body, but also the mind and the spirit.