Options in medicine: becoming a palliative care specialist

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In most cases, those interested in becoming doctors go into the field to cure diseases and save lives—but there is more to being a doctor than fixing an injury or curing a condition. Sometimes, the goal of treatment may be to reduce suffering and ease pain and other symptoms. That’s where a palliative doctors come in.

Palliative care medicine is a relatively new specialty. Palliative care specialists focus on providing care and treatments which improve quality of life for people in any stage of their illness, whether it is life threating, terminal or curable.

What does a palliative care specialist do?

A patient discussing his symptoms with his doctor. Palliative care doctors work closely with other physicians to treat uncomfortable symptoms, such as pain, nausea and fatigue. Treatment may involve prescribing medication, radiation therapy or other procedures to alleviate symptoms and improve functioning. Palliative care is often recommended for hospice patients and those whose disease is considered incurable. That being said, palliative care is also for people who are actively receiving curative treatment and are expected to recover.

Doctors who specialize in palliative care may educate patients and family members on ways to improve the patient’s wellbeing through diet, exercise, medication and relaxation techniques. Palliative care doctors may also provide information on advanced directives and help patients make difficult medical decisions.

In order to provide comprehensive palliative care, various members of the interdisciplinary team, such as nurses, social workers, counselors and nutritionists are involved in a patient’s care. The palliative care doctor leads the team and makes sure everyone is on the same page.

Palliative care doctors work in hospitals of all sizes, rehabilitation facilities, sub-acute hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities. They may also work in private practice and outpatient clinics.

Training and education

Palliative care was recognized as a subspecialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties in 2006 and board certification is available in hospice and palliative care medicine. 

After graduating from college with a four year degree and completing medical school, doctors interested in palliative care must complete a residency in one of ten specialties. The specialties include family practice, physical medicine and rehabilitation, internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, neurology, obstetrics and gynecology, surgery and psychiatry.  

After residency, a minimum of a one year palliative care fellowship must be completed. Upon completion of a palliative care fellowship, doctors can take an exam to become board certified in hospice and palliative care.

Outlook

Although palliative care is a relatively new subspecialty, the outlook is good. Advances in medicine have allowed people to live longer and survive conditions that were once fatal, but increased survival does not always mean being pain or symptom free. Increased importance has also been placed on improving a patient’s quality of life—not just curing his or her condition—which also creates a need for palliative care doctors. 

For many doctors, their goal is to fix someone, cure their disease or save their life. As a palliative care specialist, your focus is not just on your patient’s survival, but on his or her quality of life and overall well-being.  

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