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Ask an Expert: Palliative Medicine

Ask an Expert: Palliative Medicine

With SMH Supportive Care Services Medical Director Dr. Joelle Vlahakis

For this “Ask an Expert” Q&A, we took a look at Palliative Medicine, a medical specialty that is often confused with Hospice care. We asked SMH Supportive Care Services Medical Director and board-certified Palliative Medicine specialist Dr. Joelle Vlahakis 5 common questions related to Palliative Care. If you’d like to do a deeper dive into the topic, we recommend watching the PBS Frontline special “Being Mortal;” click here to watch it.  

Five Common Questions about Palliative Care

1.     What is Palliative Care?

Palliative Care, also called “Palliative Medicine,” is coordinated care that focuses on quality of life for patients facing complicated medical problems or prolonged illness. Appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness, palliative medical care is not just “end of life care.” It is often provided along with curative treatment.

Palliative Medicine specialists are experts in their field whose approach centers on the patient and family—not the cure of the illness. Having a Palliative Care team—including board-certified doctors, specialty trained nurses, and others—provides patients with an extra layer of support during their hospital stay.

The Palliative team works with each patient’s other healthcare providers to ensure customized, patient-focused care and treatment. The Palliative Care medical specialty is recognized by Medicare and other insurance companies.

2.     How does Palliative Care differ from Hospice?

All hospice care is Palliative Care, but not all Palliative Care is Hospice.

Palliative Care:

•       can be used at any time during illness.

•       can be combined with curative care.

•       includes consultations just like all other medical specialties.

Hospice Care:

•       requires that patients have a prognosis of six months or less to live.

•       focus on comfort care, not curative care.

Palliative Medicine challenges the notion that being comfortable and well-supported during prolonged illness or injury is reserved only for those who have a short life expectancy and no hope of recovery. 

Palliative Care providers often have a great deal of Hospice experience. However, these professionals apply their medical skills to patients who may not want or need hospice care. This approach to medical care includes taking the time to explain what is happening not only to the patient, but to the patient’s family. They provide a “safe place” for the patient and patient’s family to ask questions and to share, sometimes having conversations too difficult to have with family members or those providers treating the actual illness.

3.     How is Palliative Care different from what my doctors already provide?

Palliative Medicine specialists are experts in the relief of pain and other symptoms (anxiety, nausea, shortness of breath, for example) related to disease. Their expertise in making prognoses can help other physicians develop a comprehensive care plan, and it can help you and your family prepare for the future. 

Certainly, many physicians and specialists are very good at managing the negative impact of the diseases they treat. But Palliative Medicine specialists focus on you and your family—not curing your illness. Sarasota Memorial Hospital doctors have come to rely on the Palliative Medicine team when symptoms become out of control, or the medical problems become very complicated.

4.     Which patients need Palliative Care?

Anyone struggling with a serious illness or complicated medical problems related to a prolonged illness or injury can benefit from Palliative Care. Research has found that palliative care, in conjunction with other specialties, can not only improve quality of life, but that many patients feel better for longer when their medical treatment includes Palliative Care.

The Palliative Medicine team—which includes the medical director and two nurse practitioners—will work with the patient, the patient’s family and their medical team to help to coordinate their inpatient care around what is important to the patient and their family.

5.     How do I get Palliative Care?

At Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the Palliative Medicine team offers consultation service seven days a week. Your attending physician can put in a request for a consultation with the Palliative team.

“Ask an Expert” is a Q&A series with Sarasota Memorial’s health and medical experts, where you can get thorough answers to your health queries from a local source you can trust. Have question that you’d like to “Ask an Expert”? Email it to

Dr. Joelle Vlahakis is Sarasota Memorial Hospital’s medical director of Supportive Care Services and associate medical director of Medical Management. Board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, Dr. Vlahakis is a Diplomat in Hospice and Palliative Medicine and a fellow in the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine. Through her work, Dr. Vlahakis aims to extend the reach of Palliative Care services in her community while ensuring quality, high value, patient-centered medical care for all patients. In addition to her many roles at SMH, Dr. Vlahakis is an affiliate physician at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute and a clinical assistant professor of Internal Medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine-Sarasota.

Posted: Oct 9, 2017,
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Author: Muss