What is Supportive Care?

Editor’s Note: With November being National Home Care & Hospice Month, our editorial team felt it was important to take a minute and go “back to the basics” for those who aren’t really sure what the term “supportive care” means. The following post is our way of kicking off the month so enjoy!

What does my doctor mean when he says I should have “supportive care”?

Different organizations have different ways they use the term “supportive care.” In the past, doctors would talk about supporting a patient’s vital functions, but not trying to cure them, as supportive measures.

This use has fallen out of favor, and now the term “supportive care” typically means that a patient’s symptoms are assessed and managed, and that their goals of care are sought out and used to guide the treatment plan.

If I receive “supportive care,” am I giving up?

No, absolutely not! Supportive care is given at the same time as routine medical care. Supportive care simply means that the focus of treatment is what is important to the patient.

Sometimes, that means that aggressive measures are no longer part of the plan. Sometimes, it means a patient is ready to enter hospice care. Sometimes they are still getting very aggressive medical interventions.

So what does supportive care really do?

So often in health care, we do things because it is what we have always done. Someone has a particular condition, so we do “x” test and use “y” medicine. While those interventions are still possible, in supportive care we focus on the patient’s symptoms, on how they feel.

Are they in pain? Or depressed? Or anxious? Are they well informed about what is wrong, and what their options are? And what happens if they choose a certain course? Is the family aware? Has someone been designated to make decisions if the patient cannot?

Isn’t that just good medical care?

These are all things that sound like part of good medicine and they are. The reality of medicine today is that they don’t always get tended to the way doctors and nurses would like to, for a variety of reasons.

In those cases, supportive care helps. In fact, supportive care should start at the beginning of care, and become a larger focus as a chronic disease gets worse. It happens alongside everything else we do in medicine.

Who provides supportive care?

Sometimes supportive care means a palliative care consult from a specialized team. Sometimes it is having a conversation about future care, which we call advance care planning. Sometimes it is what your regular doctor or provider does, and sometimes he or she needs help to do it.

Supportive Care – The Bottom Line

The bottom line is… supportive care is a special type of care given to patients and their families who are facing serious illness. It provides an extra layer of support to the care team, and is provided along with usual treatment.

Supportive care has been shown to help patients have fewer symptoms, and actually get better faster by paying attention to those aspects of their care. Who would not want that?

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