by Ruth Mugalian, Public Communications Inc.

Read the full article about defining palliative care in the Winter issue of The Quarterly.

When I talk about my work with hospice and palliative medicine specialists and why I enjoy it, I usually say something like this: “They’re doctors who take care of very sick patients. They relieve their symptoms and make them feel better.” It should be a communications professional’s dream. It’s simple, understandable and positive. There’s no esoteric medical jargon or complex technical language to translate into layman’s terms.

And yet, that simple, positive description doesn’t quite capture it.

Describing what hospice and palliative medicine specialists do is an evolving challenge, as evidenced by the many different ways the doctors explain their work. Unlike many other medical specialties, there’s no simple one- or two-word description, like “heart surgeon” or “cancer specialist.” “They relieve symptoms” is far too narrow, but also too broad. Don’t most doctors relieve symptoms? And, what about all the other care they provide: the help with decision making and navigating the system, the coordination of care, the support for families?

Just summarizing the breadth of care is challenging enough, but of course, there’s another challenge. The heart surgeon fixes the heart. The cancer specialist attacks the cancer. HPM doctors don’t cure. They provide the care that helps the surgeon and the oncologist cure, and that helps the patient endure the cure.

And sometimes there is no cure. That’s when the HPM’s role takes on special meaning and ironically and frustratingly gets twisted into something negative: they withhold care, give up on the patient, hasten death. Of course, the opposite is true. They stay on the job when others have no more to offer. They continue, or begin, providing care when others have stopped. They’re passionate about controlling pain. Snappy phrases are tempting: “They don’t cure, they care.” “They never stop caring,” “Helping you endure, with or without a cure.” They’re simple, understandable and positive, and they don’t quite capture it.