What is Palliative Care?

Dr. Diane Meier, Director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care defines what palliative care is and how it can help those facing serious illness as well as their families.

Palliative Care

Palliative care, also known as palliative medicine, is specialized medical care focused on relief of the symptoms and stress of serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both patient and family. It is appropriate at any age and any stage in a serious illness and can be provided along with curative treatment.

Provided by a team that includes palliative care physicians, nurses, social workers and other specialists, palliative care specialists work with a patient’s own doctor to provide an extra layer of support.

A Rapidly Growing Trend in Health Care

Over the last decade palliative care has been one of the fastest growing trends in health care. In fact, the number of palliative care teams within U.S. hospitals with 50 or more beds has increased 164%, from 658 in the year 2000 to more than 1,700 today.1

This growth has occurred primarily in response to the increasing number of Americans living with serious and chronic illnesses and to the caregiving realities faced by their families. But palliative care has also been embraced for the simple reason that it gives patients and families control and choice over their own care. The strong partnership of patient, family and the palliative care team ensures that treatment goals are established and coordinated and full communication is maintained in what is often a long, complex course of serious illness. Learn more by reading the latest State-by-State Report Card.

Research Shows People Want Palliative Care

Palliative care is expected to increase as the public becomes more aware of its benefits. Recent public opinion research by the national polling firm Public Opinion Strategies reveals that even for those patients who are uninformed about palliative care, once they understand what it is, 92% report they would be likely to consider palliative care for themselves or their families if they had a serious illness. 92% also said they believe patients should have access to this type of care at hospitals nationwide.2

Improved Quality Leads to Cost Reduction

Today, approximately 90 million Americans are living with serious illness, and this number is expected to more than double over the next 25 years. About 20% of all Medicare beneficiaries have 5 or more chronic conditions, and two-thirds of Medicare spending goes to cover their care. This patient population is also the most likely to benefit from palliative care. Recent studies indicate that by closely matching treatments with patients’ goals, and improving their quality of life, palliative care can provide substantial cost reduction.3

Growing Demand, Limited Supply

A major barrier facing the expansion of palliative care services is the lack of palliative medicine physicians. Where there is approximately one cardiologist for every 71 persons experiencing a heart attack and one oncologist for every 141 newly diagnosed cancer patients, there is only one palliative medicine physician for every 1,200 persons living with a serious or life-threatening illness.

Policy and Palliative Care

Despite the considerable growth in the number of palliative care programs across the United States, barriers in three key areas—workforce, research and access—currently prevent full availability of palliative care for all patients and families facing serious or life-threatening illness. Specifically, three key palliative care policy initiatives are needed:

  • Investment in a trained workforce to ensure sufficient numbers of specialists both to teach all clinicians the fundamentals and to directly provide high-quality palliative care for the highest-risk and most complex patients;
  • Investment in the research necessary to establish a strong science base for palliative care and to expand palliative care’s ability to improve both quality and length of life;
  • Investment in health care system capacity by requiring delivery of high-quality palliative care in hospitals, nursing homes and community settings through changes in measurement, payment and accreditation standards.

To learn more about specific recommendations for action to improve access to palliative care, please visit:


To learn more about palliative care in general, please see the following palliative care resources:




  1. Center to Advance Palliative Care. National Palliative Care Registry Annual Survey Summary. July 2014. Accessed Oct. 16, 2014.
  2. Center to Advance Palliative Care.  2011 Public Opinion Research on Palliative Care. Accessed Oct. 16, 2014.
  3. Morrison SR, Dietrich J, Ladwig S, et al. Palliative care consultation teams cut hospital costs for Medicaid beneficiaries. Health Aff. 2011;30:454-463.