The terms hospice care and palliative care are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean quite the same thing. Both fall under the umbrella of “comfort care,” but they do have some meaningful differences that are important to know if you or a loved one are in need of these forms of care.

What is comfort care?

It helps to start with the broad definition of comfort care. This term describes the care that is provided to maintain a patient’s comfort and can include medical treatments as well as management of symptoms. Examples include care that relieves anxiety and pain, facilitates breathing, and keeps the patient calm and at ease. 

Comfort care also includes providing support and assistance to the patient’s caregivers. Caregiving can be very demanding, and comfort care helps manage the stress that caregivers may experience by lending a sympathetic ear and offering guidance and advice.

Distinguishing between palliative care and hospice care

While palliative and hospice care both take a holistic approach to care—responding to the physical as well as emotional and psychological needs of the patient—where they diverge is in the time and circumstance under which they are administered. 

Palliative care can be applied as soon as a diagnosis is determined and may be provided alongside major medical treatments. Hospice care, on the other hand, is reserved for the end of life, usually the final six months, and is given when major medical interventions have ceased. The medical care process can involve a team of nurses, physicians and other professionals within a home environment.

As an example, a patient with cancer who is undergoing chemotherapy may be administered palliative care to manage their pain, nausea, difficulty breathing, and mental health. Since the patient doesn’t necessarily have a terminal diagnosis, they wouldn’t qualify for hospice care. Hospice care would only come into play if the patient’s case were deemed to be terminal and with six months or less of life remaining. 

Perhaps because of hospice care’s association with the end of life, it can trigger fear or distress in patients and their loved ones. Comfort care has proven to be a gentler and less “scary” term that is easier for people to accept.