What is the difference between palliative care and hospice?

David Hui, medical oncologist and palliative care specialist at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston

The two concepts of palliative care and hospice are closely linked, but there are important distinctions. Palliative care focuses on alleviating symptoms of a serious illness to improve a person’s quality of life. Hospice is one branch of palliative care offered at the end of life.

Palliative care may be offered to patients at the start of their cancer journey, throughout cancer treatment or after treatment has ended. Many people—especially those with an advanced cancer diagnosis—can benefit from the expertise of a palliative care team to help with symptom management and quality-of-life concerns. It’s worth noting that palliative care experts do more than manage physical pain. Care may address symptoms such as psychosocial pain, anxiety, depression, fatigue, shortness of breath and weight loss. A palliative care team can support a patient as a whole person.

Hospice care specifically focuses on maintaining comfort, care and quality of life as a person who is quite sick approaches the end of their life. To be eligible for hospice, a patient must have a terminal illness with a life expectancy of six months or less. They also must no longer be receiving life-sustaining treatment for their cancer or be ready to discontinue cancer treatment. Once they meet the eligibility criteria, patients often receive their care at home or close to home. In contrast, a person receiving palliative care outside of hospice would still travel to their main doctor’s office or clinic for cancer treatment and any other needed care.


Unfortunately, many patients still do not have access to palliative care specialists or may see these specialists only when their cancer has reached an advanced stage. If you or a loved one doesn’t already have access to a doctor with the needed expertise in symptom management, also known as supportive care, ask your oncologist about it. Many people with a cancer diagnosis stand to benefit from meeting with a palliative care team that can help them improve quality of life and better tolerate treatments going forward. Palliative care specialists’ goal is to help patients do as well as possible at each step along the way.

PALLIATIVE CARE VS. HOSPICE // The National Institute on Aging explores the similarities and differences between palliative and hospice care. // The American Cancer Society explains the benefits of palliative care for people with cancer.

The expert’s response was edited for clarity and based on an interview with Kendall K. Morgan.