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Palliative care is the orphan of the Canadian health system

By Fred Horne      

Canada can do better; despite research and advocacy work on the importance of palliative care, awareness is low and services are fragmented.

The $3-billion committed by Health Minister Philpott to improve home care, including palliative home care, is an important signal to all parts of the health system that action is needed now. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

With good palliative care, we can live out our days relatively free of pain and suffering, confident that our physical, spiritual, and emotional needs are being met.

Unfortunately, too often palliative care in Canada leaves people without the support and care they need. It’s an orphan in our health system. When I was Alberta’s minister of health, people would tell me their stories about caring for someone in their family. It didn’t take long to understand that our system is leaving too many people stranded at the time when they are most vulnerable.

We can do better. In fact, we know better—research and advocacy organizations have produced a major report on the topic, every year, for 20 years on average. Despite good work and recommendations, awareness is low and services are fragmented.

That’s why Palliative Care Matters came about. Alberta’s Covenant Health, together with Canada’s leading health organizations partnered with patients and families from across the country to build a future where we all can access the care we need.

Good palliative care improves the quality of life for people of any age and any stage of a serious illness. It provides comfort and support to patients and families during a life-limiting illness, at the end stages of life, and when dealing with grief and loss. It includes relieving pain and other symptoms, and relieving psychological and spiritual suffering.

If we want to improve the health system, you need to ask the patients and families; we worked with Ipsos Research to gather the views of Canadians as a starting point. The results showed how important palliative care is: one in four of us have or are currently providing palliative/end of life care. Canadians also have very strong views on what that care should be. When it comes to palliative home care, 91 per cent support 24/7 access to a nurse, daily assistance with caregiving, and someone to help them co-ordinate care.

We also looked at all the reports done over the past 20 years and asked which of their recommendations needed further examination.  A group of citizens, academics, and health care professionals selected six questions focusing on important barriers to a quality system.

Those questions—what a comprehensive system would look like, supporting caregivers, improving the skills of health care professionals, palliative home care, informing Canadians, and gathering the right data—are the focus of three days of deliberations by a Lay Panel of Canadians drawn from all walks of life and regions of the country from November 7-9 in Ottawa.

At the end of Consensus Development Conference, this group of Canadians, led by Don Newman, will have made recommendations that will take us toward the time when all Canadians have access to the care they desperately need and richly deserve.

The $3-billion committed by Health Minister Philpott to improve home care, including palliative home care, is an important signal to all parts of the health system that action is needed now. I am hopeful that the work of the Lay Panel will be part of this conversation.

Next steps include The Conference Board of Canada laying out how the Consensus Statement and its recommendations can be actioned. They must not sit on another shelf.

The Consensus Statement was this morning at the Ottawa Marriott Hotel. To view the webcast or read the statement, go to PalliativeCareMatters.ca.

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