WHO reviews fact sheet on Palliative care (7 August 2017)

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reviewed its fact sheet on palliative care.

Background Information:

Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients (adults and children) and their families who are facing problems associated with life-threatening illness.

It prevents and relieves suffering through the early identification, correct assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, whether physical, psychosocial or spiritual.

Palliative care is explicitly recognized under the human right to health.

The majority of adults in need of palliative care have chronic diseases such as

  • cardiovascular diseases (38.5%),
  • cancer (34%),
  • chronic respiratory diseases (10.3%),
  • AIDS (5.7%) and
  • diabetes (4.6%).

Many other conditions may require palliative care, including

  • kidney failure,
  • chronic liver disease,
  • multiple sclerosis,
  • Parkinson’s disease,
  • rheumatoid arthritis,
  • neurological disease,
  • dementia,
  • congenital anomalies and
  • drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Pain is one of the most frequent and serious symptoms experienced by patients in need of palliative care. Opioid analgesics are essential for treating the pain associated with many advanced progressive conditions.

Key Messages:

Each year an estimated 40 million people are in need of palliative care, 78% of whom live in low- and middle-income countries.

98% of the children needing palliative care live in low- and middle-income countries with almost half of them living in Africa.

Worldwide, only about 14% of people who need palliative care currently receive it.

There are several barriers to palliative care worldwide:

  • national health policies and systems do not often include palliative care at all
  • training on palliative care for health professionals is often limited or non-existent
  • population access to opioid pain relief is inadequate and fails to meet international conventions on access to essential medicines.
  • lack of awareness among policy-makers, health professionals and the public about what palliative care is, and the benefits it can offer patients and health systems
  • cultural and social barriers, such as beliefs about death and dying
  • misconceptions about palliative care, such as that it is only for patients with cancer, or for the last weeks of life
  • misconceptions that improving access to opioid analgesia will lead to increased substance abuse.


The global need for palliative care will continue to grow as a result of the rising burden of noncommunicable diseases and ageing populations.

Early palliative care reduces unnecessary hospital admissions and the use of health services.

Specialist palliative care is one component of palliative care service delivery. But a sustainable, quality and accessible palliative care system needs to be integrated into primary health care, community and home-based care, as well as supporting care providers such as family and community volunteers.

Providing palliative care should be considered an ethical duty for health professionals.

Useful Links:

Link to the fact sheet:


Link to Global Atlas on Palliative Care at the End of Life (English) [PDF]:



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