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Learning modules

Activity 6: Understanding quality of life

Palliative care is a specialised area of health care that's been developed to respond to the type of needs described in the previous section.

Palliative care was developed in the 1960s after it was recognised that the care provided to people with life-limiting illnesses in institutions (e.g. hospitals) needed to be improved.

There are a number of palliative care definitions. The World Health Organization (WHO) has the most well-known definition. It describes palliative care as:

'... an approach that improves quality of life of patients and their families facing problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychological and spiritual.' [1]

Key points in the WHO approach

  • The palliative approach comes early in the course of an illness, not just as end-of-life care.
  • There is an emphasis on promoting holistic care to ensure physical, psychological, social and spiritual well-being.
  • The family and significant others are included in the care process.
  • There is an emphasis on impeccable assessment, early identification of problems and implementation of appropriate treatments.
  • Disease modifying treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, may have a role.
  • Palliative care can be provided in any setting.
  • There is an emphasis on a team approach to care.

Improving the quality of life of patients and their families is a central goal of palliative care. Defining what quality of life means for each person is not a straight forward process. This is because quality of life is:

  • multidimensional: many different aspects of a person's life (physical, emotional, social, and spiritual) can be important to his or her quality of life
  • subjective: defined and experienced by each person in unique ways
  • dynamic: quality of life can change over time.

Thinking points


1. World Health Organization (WHO). (1998). WHO Definition of Palliative Care. Retrieved January 25, 2010, from