Frequently asked questions

What is the difference between palliative care, specialist palliative care, end-of-life care, and hospice care?

Both the public and health care workers often find the language and terminology around palliative and end-of-life care confusing. Some of this stems the ways services have evolved over time, and the varied resources and guidance available. In this section we have provided some links which we hope will make this area a little easier to understand:

What is palliative care?

“Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients (adults and children) and their families who are facing problems associated with life-threatening illness. It prevents and relieves suffering through the early identification, correct assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, whether physical, psychosocial or spiritual.

Addressing suffering involves taking care of issues beyond physical symptoms. Palliative care uses a team approach to support patients and their caregivers. This includes addressing practical needs and providing bereavement counselling. It offers a support system to help patients live as actively as possible until death.”

Source: World Health Organisation

Many palliative care needs can be delivered by existing members of the healthcare team such as GPs and community nurse.

Learn more about palliative care from the Marie Curie website.

What is specialist palliative care?

Specialist palliative care is required by people with progressive life-limiting illness where the focus of care is on quality of life and who have unresolved complex needs that cannot be met by their current care team. These needs may be physical, psychological, social and/or spiritual.

Specialist palliative care is considered a speciality service. These services may be provided locally in four main ways:

  • Specialist level palliative services in acute or community hospitals.
  • Specialist level palliative home visiting services for patients in their own home.
  • Specialist level in-patient palliative care in a hospice.
  • Specialist level out-patient clinic services.

Specialist palliative care team members should have their main focus of work in palliative care with services containing practitioners with specialist knowledge and skills.

What is end-of-life care?

People may be referred to as ‘approaching end-of-life’ when they are likely to die within the next 12 months. This includes a range of people, including those for whom death is expected within a few hours or days. It may also include people with:

  • advanced, progressive, incurable conditions such as heart failure
  • general frailty and co-existing conditions such as dementia
  • those at risk of dying from a sudden and rapid deterioration in their existing condition such as an exacerbation of COPD
  • And those who become suddenly and perhaps unexpectedly unwell from a sudden catastrophic event such as a stroke

It can be helpful to identify those people who may be approaching end-of-life to ensure that any increase in symptoms, or care needs may be identified and anticipated.

Read more about end-of-life care delivered both in the context of the last 12 months of life, and for those in the last hours or days of life.

What is hospice care?

People may receive hospice care at any point in their illness, from diagnosis, to care in the last days and hours of life. Admission to the hospice is dictated by need, with hospices aiming to address the physical, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual suffering arising from complex symptoms related to the burden of serious illness. Hospice care provides a short stay facility which focuses on improving quality of life for both the patient, and their family. Most are charitable organisations who provide free care to patients.

Hospices are staffed by a range of specialist staff including doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, chaplains, complimentary therapists, volunteers etc. Each hospice is different in terms of the facilities available, with many providing additional services such as lymphoedema clinics, outreach services such as the neighbourhood hubs provided by Cornwall Hospice Care and hospice at home services such as those supplied by St Luke’s Hospice in Plymouth.

For national and local hospices please view the links below:

Page last reviewed: 15 December 2023

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