How big is the need for palliative care?

Categories: Research.

Palliative care is essential to ease preventable suffering for many patients and their families across the world. Although early detection and treatment of potentially life-threatening illnesses will help reduce the need for palliative care, this need will never be eliminated as many diseases will remain fatal for some people.

The methodology used in the Atlas to estimate the level of palliative care need considers mortality data from diseases requiring palliative care, adjusted by the estimated pain prevalence for each disease category (cancer, HIV/AIDS and progressive non-malignant diseases).

Adults and children often need palliative care for different conditions.

The Atlas notes the following:

  • over 40 million patients each year need palliative care, including 20 million at the end of life
  • only a small percentage (less than 10%) of people receive palliative care relative to this need
  • the unmet need for palliative care is greatest in low and middle-income countries where there is about 80% of the need for palliative care
  • those dying from non-communicable diseases represent around 90% of the burden of end of life palliative care
  • the largest need for palliative care globally is by adults over 60 years old. This group constitutes 69% of the total need.
  • children represent 6% of the overall need for end of life palliative care globally. An estimated minimum of 1.2 million children need palliative care at the end of life.

Because palliative care is a holistic approach that provides psychosocial and spiritual care for the family as well as the patient, the actual number of people in need of palliative care is much higher than these estimates. If we consider that for every adult or child dying from a disease requiring palliative care, there are at least one or two caregivers involved, the total number of people in need of palliative care would double or triple.

These estimates, published for the first time in the Atlas, are vital for use in palliative care advocacy. They are also an excellent reference to assist policymakers in organising resources and services to respond to these urgent humanitarian needs.