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Q. My father's oncologist has made a referral for him to see a pain specialist. Is this palliative care? He seems resistant - how do convince him that it's a good idea? And is palliative care covered by insurance?


A distinction needs to be made between a referral to palliative care and a referral to a pain specialist. Palliative care (pronounced pal-lee-uh-tiv) is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing patients with relief from the pain, symptoms and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.

Palliative care is provided by a team of doctors, nurses, social workers and other specialists who work together with a patient’s own doctors to provide an extra layer of support. It is appropriate at any age and at any stage in a serious illness and can be provided along with curative treatment.

Palliative care physicians are specially trained in complex pain management resulting from serious illnesses such as cancer, so they are experts in administering managing opioids and other potent pain medications. Pain management specialists usually treat pain that does not result from complex, serious illness. They are often anesthesiologists if they are physicians, or nurse anesthetists if they are nurses.

Palliative care specialists bill insurance just like oncologists, cardiologists or any other specialist. Your father might have received a referral to either a pain specialist or a palliative care team. Either way, it is important that he follows up with the referral for his own physical and emotional well-being. Pain associated with cancer is complicated because the causes of pain can be variable and change from day to day.

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