What Is Hospice Care?

Hospice provides comfort and support when treatment is ending.

Young woman caring for elderly woman

Updated on January 30, 2024.

The end of life can be a difficult time, emotionally and physically. Most adults say they’d prefer to die at home, pain-free, surrounded by friends and family. Hospice can help. 

Hospice is a type of medical care that supports people and their families during this important time. The idea behind it is that compassionate, quality care at the end of life is a basic right for all of us. At least 1.7 million Americans used hospice in 2021, according to the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO). 

Different kinds of healthcare providers (HCPs) and volunteers deliver hospice care. They provide many kinds of support, including:

  • Physical support
  • Emotional support
  • Spiritual support
  • Social support

If you’re considering hospice care, here’s what you need to know.

What’s the difference between hospice and palliative care?

Both hospice and palliative care provide comfort to people with serious illnesses. They both can help manage pain and ease symptoms. 

There is one main difference between them. You can get palliative care at the same time you receive treatment for cancer or other diseases. Hospice care begins when treatment is ending, or there are no more options.

If your HCP believes you have six months or less left to live, they can refer you to hospice. It does not end if you live longer than six months, however. In that case, your HCP can make sure that you can still receive hospice care. 

What are the benefits of hospice?

Above all, hospice helps keep people comfortable at the end of their lives. That way, they can focus on the things that matter most. 

Hospice care providers are specially trained to handle the needs of people who are dying. Your hospice team may include:

  • Physicians
  • Nurses
  • Social workers
  • Therapists
  • Home health professionals
  • Spiritual advisors
  • Bereavement counselors 
  • Trained volunteers 

The first step in hospice is developing a care plan. This should meet the needs of the patient and their family. It may include any of the following:

  • Pain and symptom management
  • Teaching families how to care for patients at home
  • Providing home equipment and medications
  • Spiritual counseling
  • Emotional support
  • Companionship
  • Practical help such as running errands, helping with meals, and giving caretakers a break (also known as respite care)

Hospice also provides grief support to loved ones before and after the patient’s passing.

Members of the hospice team meet with patients and their families based on a schedule. This can change as the patient’s needs change. Most hospice providers can be called outside of normal business hours for help.

Studies suggest hospice care can increase how long some people live. This may be due to the focus on comfort and well-being, instead of harsh, end-of-life medical treatment. Hospice can also help people die at home, if that is what they wish.

Choosing hospice can lower healthcare costs, too. Many studies have found that families and insurers pay less when hospice is used.

Where can I receive hospice care?

Hospice is not necessarily a place—although it can be. Patients may receive hospice:

  • At home
  • In a hospital
  • In a freestanding hospice program

More than half of people in hospice receive care at home. Home can mean:

  • Their house or apartment
  • A nursing home
  • An assisted living facility 
  • Another residential facility

Many times, medical care needs change. If you have to move from one place to another, hospice can move with you.

Do I have to pay for hospice?

For most people, Medicare or Medicaid will cover the majority of hospice costs. The Veteran’s Administration and many private insurance companies also offer a hospice benefit. Some people may get coverage from a grant program or community organization, too. Certain services and hospice centers might not be covered, so always check.

How can I find a hospice program?

Medicare certifies hospice programs. So, start your search at the online Medicare hospice finder. Choose a hospice that is accredited and is a member of NHPCO. This suggests quality care and higher standards. 

The government offers a list of questions to ask when you’re looking for hospice. For example, you might want to check how long the hospice has been serving patients. You might also want to know who might handle a crisis at night or on the weekends.

Many people eligible for hospice care don’t get it until very close to end of life. If you or a loved one think you qualify and your HCP does not suggest hospice, ask about it. This valuable service can provide support, comfort, and meaning when it’s needed most.

Article sources open article sources

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Hospice Care Overview for Professionals. Accessed January 29, 2024. 
National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. NHPCO Facts and Figures: 2023 Edition. December 2023.
National Institute on Aging. What Are Palliative Care and Hospice Care? Reviewed May 14, 2021.
National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Hospice FAQs. Accessed January 29, 2024.
Gelfman LP, Barrón Y, Moore S, Murtaugh CM, et al. Predictors of Hospice Enrollment for Patients With Advanced Heart Failure and Effects on Health Care Use. JACC Heart Fail. 2018 Sep;6(9):780-789. 
Chiang JK, Kao YH, Lai NS. The Impact of Hospice Care on Survival and Healthcare Costs for Patients with Lung Cancer: A National Longitudinal Population-Based Study in Taiwan. PLoS One. 2015 Sep 25;10(9):e0138773.
Connor SR, Pyenson B, Fitch K, Spence C, Iwasaki K. Comparing hospice and nonhospice patient survival among patients who die within a three-year window. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2007 Mar;33(3):238-46.
Aldridge MD, Moreno J, McKendrick K, Li L, et al. Association Between Hospice Enrollment and Total Health Care Costs for Insurers and Families, 2002-2018. JAMA Health Forum. 2022;3(2):e215104.
Zuckerman R, Stearns S, Sheingold S. Hospice Use, Hospitalization, and Medicare Spending at the End of Life. J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2018 Apr 16;73(4):e37-e38. 
Bhatnagar M, Lagnese KR. Hospice Care. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-.
Medicare.gov. How hospice works. Accessed January 29, 2024.
Medicaid.gov. Hospice Benefits. Accessed January 29, 2024.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Geriatrics and Extended Care: What is Hospice Care? Last updated October 18, 2023.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Paying for Home Health and Hospice Care. Accessed January 29, 2024.

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