Towards a palliative care approach in psychiatry: do we need a new definition?

Journal of Medical Ethics 45 (1):26-30 (2019)
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Psychiatry today is mainly practised within a curative framework. However, many mental disorders are persistent and negatively affect quality of life as well as life expectancy. This tension between treatment goals and the actual illness trajectory has evoked a growing academic interest in ‘palliative psychiatry’, namely the application of a palliative care approach in patients with severe persistent mental illness. Recently, Trachsel et al presented a working definition of palliative psychiatry. This first official attempt to capture the concept is based on WHO’s widely accepted definition of palliative care but modified and limited to include only severe persistent psychiatric illness. While this is a welcome step in the discussion on palliative care approaches in psychiatry, it also opens up for new questions. One of the most evident is whether psychiatry actually needs its own definition of palliative care or, put differently, whether there is something about mental disorders that differs so radically from other medical conditions that it calls for a separate definition. We acknowledge the need to discuss the goals of psychiatric care in patients with severe persistent psychiatric illness. However, we question whether a separate definition of palliative care exclusive to psychiatry is the right way to go. In this paper, we discuss why.



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