Health care and its cost remains a hot topic, but one discipline that could use more attention is hospice care. While more than 1.5 million people with a life-limiting illness get help from hospice and palliative care providers in the United States every single year, nearly 50 percent of the people who are appropriate for hospice care do not receive it.

At Hospice of the Southwest, we believe that's due in large part because many people are not familiar with hospice. During November, which is National Hospice and Palliative Care Month, we'd like to offer some important information about hospice and the role it can play in helping meet the growing need for health care.

Let's look at the facts. By 2020, Arizona is projected to have more than 165,000 residents age 85 or older, ranking us in the top 15 states in terms of numbers of the oldest of the old. Recognizing that fact and that by 2020 one in four Arizonans will be over the age of 60, we expect the usage of hospice services in Arizona, already above average in the U.S. according to the 2011 Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, to increase.

In fact, the use of hospice services, which are designed to improve your quality of life by relieving pain and other symptoms and to keep you as comfortable as possible in a familiar environment with family and friends, has increased 64 percent in the United States since 2002

It's important to understand that hospice is not a place, but a special kind of care. It's care that helps patients and families focus on living by providing a team of expert medical care to keep patients comfortable and able to enjoy time with loved ones.

The hospice team answers questions, offers advice on what to expect, and helps families with the duties of being a caregiver. The team also provides emotional and spiritual support for the entire family.

All the necessary medicines and equipment needed to keep a patient comfortable can be brought right to the home, which is where most Americans would like to be if at all possible. Hospice makes this happen.

Palliative care brings these same skilled services earlier in the course of an illness and can be provided along with other treatments a patient may want to pursue. Many people don't realize that hospices are the largest providers of palliative care services in the U.S.

Hospice is covered by Medicare, Medicaid in most states, and by most insurance plans and HMOs. Hospice care is provided in the home, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and long-term care centers.

Hospice care is available to people of all ages, with any illness. Hospice professionals and trained volunteers will ask you what's important and listen to what you say. They make your wishes a priority.

If you or a loved one is facing a serious or life-limiting illness, the time to find out more about hospice and palliative care is right now.

• Julia Campbell, RN, is chief administrative officer for Hospice of the Southwest, a Mesa-based community hospice.

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