Americans often confuse hospice care, which precludes aggressive medical treatment and usually requires a prognosis of six months or less, and palliative care. The nub of the difference is that a palliative care team can be providing pain relief, psychological and spiritual support – even as another medical specialist is aggressively trying to cure or treat disease.

Palliative services are designed to help patients and their families sort through their options – ome of which may help restore the patient, while others may increase suffering for a minimal health benefit. Recognized in 2007 as a specialty by the American Board of Medical Specialties, palliative care focuses on improving quality of life, regardless of treatment choices.

It is provided by a team headed by a doctor or nurse trained in the specialty. Most teams have a social worker who can help families find community resources such as home health or nursing home care, and many have a professional chaplain to provide spiritual counseling. Other team members can include a patient’s other doctors, physical therapists, dieticians, pharmacists and volunteer caregivers.

Patients or their families can ask their physician for a consultation with a palliative care team. Sometimes, the consultation will result in a patient deciding to forego further aggressive treatment. But that’s not always the case. Palliative care isn’t always available. A 2005 report by the American Hospital Association found palliative care teams available in 70 percent of U.S. hospitals of 250 beds or more – but only in 30 percent of all hospitals.

To arrange for a palliative care consultation, call your hospital to see if they have a team. Or call a local hospice provider. While hospice organizations provide a different kind of care, most can help people find palliative care specialists.