PURPOSE: The purpose of this analysis is to trace the evolution of the concept of palliative in the United States, explicate its meanings, and draw comparisons with other related concepts such as hospice care and terminal care. METHODS: Rodgers’ evolutionary method was used as an organizing framework for the concept analysis. Data were collected from a review of CINAHL, MEDLINE, CANCERLIT, PsycINFO and Sociological Abstracts databases using ‘palliative care’ and ‘United States’ as keywords. Articles written in the English language, with an abstract, published between 1965 and 2003 were considered. Data were synthesized to identify attributes, antecedents and consequences of palliative care. FINDINGS: There has been a significant evolution in understanding of the palliative care concept in the United States over the last few decades, which has resulted in the emergence of new models of palliative care. Four attributes of the current palliative care concept were identified: (1) total, active and individualized patient care, (2) support for the family, (3) interdisciplinary teamwork and (4) effective communication. Results reinforce that cure and palliation are not mutually exclusive categories. CONCLUSIONS: The scope of palliative care has evolved to include a wide range of patient populations who may not be appropriately termed ‘dying’ but for whom alleviation of suffering and improvement of quality of life may be very relevant goals. The ultimate success of the new models of palliative care will eventually rest upon the commitment of health professionals to recognize and integrate the changing concept of palliative care into everyday practice.