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.
Palliative care is explicitly recognized under the human right to health. It should be provided through person-centered and integrated health services that pay special attention to the specific needs and preferences of individuals.
Palliative care is required for a wide range of diseases. The majority of adults in need of palliative care have chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases (38.5%), cancer (34%), chronic respiratory diseases (10.3%), AIDS (5.7%) and diabetes (4.6%). Many other conditions may require palliative care, including kidney failure, chronic liver disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, neurological disease, dementia, congenital anomalies and drug-resistant tuberculosis.
Pain and difficulty in breathing are two of the most frequent and serious symptoms experienced by patients in need of palliative care. For example, 80% of patients with AIDS or cancer, and 67% of patients with cardiovascular disease or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease will experience moderate to severe pain at the end of their lives. Opioids are essential for managing pain.
Opioids can also alleviate other common distressing physical symptoms including breathlessness. Controlling such symptoms at an early stage is an ethical duty to relieve suffering and to respect a person’s dignity.
Insufficient access to palliative care
Each year an estimated 56.8 million people are in need of palliative care, most of whom live in low- and middle-income countries. For children, 98% of those needing palliative care live in low- and middle-income countries with almost half of them living in Africa.
Worldwide, a number of significant barriers must be overcome to address the unmet need for palliative care:
national health policies and systems often do not include palliative care at all;
training on palliative care for health professionals is often limited or non-existent; and
population access to opioid pain relief is inadequate and fails to meet international conventions on access to essential medicines.
According to a WHO survey relating to noncommunicable diseases conducted among 194 Member States in 2019: funding for palliative care was available in 68% of countries and only 40% of countries reported that the services reached at least half of patients in need.
The International Narcotics Control Board found that in 2018, 79 per cent of the world’s population, mainly people in low- and middle-income countries, consumed only 13 per cent of the total amount of morphine used for the management of pain and suffering, or 1 per cent of the 388 tons of morphine manufactured worldwide. Although that was an improvement over 2014, when 80 per cent of the world’s population consumed only 9.5 per cent of the morphine used for the management of pain and suffering, the disparity in the consumption of narcotic drugs for palliative care between low- and middle-income countries and high-income countries continues to be a matter of concern.
Other barriers to palliative care include:
- Lack of awareness among policy-makers, health professionals and the public about what palliative care is, and the benefits it can offer patients and health systems;
- Cultural and social barriers, such as beliefs about death and dying;
- Misconceptions about palliative care, such as that it is only for patients with cancer, or for the last weeks of life; and
- Misconceptions that improving access to opioid analgesia will lead to increased substance abuse.