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A palliative care unit (PCU) is a medical unit that specializes in using integrative therapeutic strategies to manage symptoms in patients who suffer from disease that is not responsive to conventional treatments. Some PCUs stand alone as independent in-patient treatment centers, while others are incorporated into hospitals, hospice centers, and other types of facilities. Patients typically served by a palliative care unit are in the advanced stages of a progressive and terminal disease, although many patients may receive palliative care much earlier. Clinicians and nursing professionals who specialize in palliative medicine provide services on a day-to-day in-patient basis, and may also act as consultants to those receiving hospice care at home.
The term palliative medicine is taken from the word palliate, which means to ease or minimize. While the primary objective of a palliative care unit is to ease physical discomfort for the patient, a secondary goal is to ease anxiety and stress often experienced by the patient’s family and other caregivers. A natural consequence of these efforts is an improved quality of life for both the patient and his or her loved ones. As such, the staff assists patients with end of life care and families in coping with the bereavement process.
Since the aim of a palliative care unit is to integrate multiple modalities, the medical staff typically works in teams that also include social workers, mental health specialists, clergy, nutritionists, occupational therapists, and other key support providers. This networked approach is essential to the fundamentals of palliative medicine, which combines psychological, rehabilitative, spiritual, and social support. In addition, various complementary therapies may also be incorporated into a patient’s care program, such as botanical medicine, guided imagery, and meditation. However, while all of these multidisciplinary tools may be employed to improve and even prolong life, they are not offered with an ambition to cure.
Every palliative care unit places as much importance on dying with dignity as it does on quality of remaining life. In fact, death is viewed as a natural part of the rhythm of life and not the end of a life’s journey. Therefore, in addition to providing grief and bereavement counseling for the living, another aspect to palliative care is to help the patient make conscious decisions about death. This may include providing legal resources to assist in funeral and estate planning, as well as the appointment of a power of attorney to oversee such arrangements.
By definition, palliative care is perceived a bit differently in various parts of the world. In many countries, such as Australia, Canada, and the UK, palliative medicine is essentially the same as hospice care and is formerly acknowledged as a medical specialty. In the US, on the other hand, hospice care is reserved for those who are near the end of life, while palliative medicine is technically defined as a system of managed care for patients in any stage of disease.