Palliative and hospice care "address the needs of the whole person, which is the foundation of Catholic health care," said Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, who is president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association, based in St. Louis.
She made the comments in an Oct. 8 news release issued jointly by CHA and the Supportive Care Coalition in Hillsboro, Oregon, to mark World Hospice and Palliative Care Day Oct. 13.
The two organizations are encouraging the public to learn more about the benefits of palliative care to relieve suffering for chronic and life-limiting conditions and about the role of hospice care at the end of life.
They also highlighted the need for greater access to and awareness of palliative care and hospice services in the United States.
While the availability of palliative and hospice care services is growing in the U.S., many patients do not have access to such services and those who do often lack an understanding of how they can benefit from this type of care, the two groups said.
"Patients diagnosed with a serious illness, such as cancer, often face daunting treatment options," Sister Keehan said. "And while modern medicine is helping prolong life, surgeries and drugs are only part of the healing process. Often as our patients' physical condition becomes the primary focus, the care for their emotional and spiritual well-being is shortchanged or overlooked."
Palliative medicine provides supportive care for people living with serious illness by focusing on relieving their physical pain as well as their emotional and spiritual distress. It "is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided alongside curative treatment," they said.
Such care involves a team of doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains and others working with the patient and family members.
Similar to palliative care, hospice care focuses on keeping a patient comfortable and pain free, both physically, emotionally and spiritually. This care "is typically provided to patients who are near the end of their lives," they said.
"We have a long way to go in making 'what matters to you' a more important question than 'what's the matter with you,'" said Denise Hess, executive director of the Supportive Care Coalition.
Hess' group is a coalition of Catholic health ministries that believe "palliative care is a hallmark of Catholic health care through which God's healing love is revealed."
Together, CHA and the Supportive Care Coalition are advocating for access to high quality palliative care for all who need it and developing resources and tools to improve palliative care programs and increase awareness of its benefits.
Three resources designed for patients and their families can be found on the CHA website, http://www.chausa.org/palliative-care:
-- "Expressing Your Health Care Wishes," which includes FAQs about advance directives.
-- "Caring Even When We Cannot Cure," which explains the differences between palliative and hospice care.
-- "Caring for People at the End of Life," which explains the Catholic Church's teaching about end-of-life decisions.
CHA said the resources are written from the perspective of Catholic tradition "but can be used by people of any religious tradition."