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By Stan Massey
If you’ve spent much time watching TV, particularly the abundance of reality shows, or scanning the vast amount of videos on YouTube, you’ll likely come to a similar conclusion as I did recently. Aside from a general lack in meaningful content, it’s tough to find a taboo subject in America.
Nothing is sacred anymore. People willingly go in front of a video camera and talk about anything – bad habits, intimate details of their lives and even criminal activities. You name it … minus one glaring exception.
Perhaps the last remaining taboo in America is discussing openly death and dying. Many of us just don’t do it or we put it off until we’re proverbially at “death’s door.”
As healthcare professionals, you don’t have to imagine the undesirable results of the avoidance of discussing death and dying. Patients may go on hospice care much, much later than they should have. Or, even worse, people may die having suffered needlessly without turning to hospice care at all.
Hospice and palliative care are two immensely critical components of our nation’s healthcare system. However, widespread misperceptions about both specialties cause a majority of people to access care and support weeks, days or sometimes just hours before their death.
Although combating rampant misperceptions like, “hospice means giving up,” or “hospice hastens death” may seem like you’re fighting an uphill battle, it’s time to bring dying out of the closet. It starts with communicating the fundamentals.
People need to know the goals of hospice and palliative care are to enhance quality of life while effectively managing pain and symptoms of the illness. Palliative care can be accessed at anytime during an illness, even while the patient seeks curative treatment. Hospice care, on the other hand, is available for anyone with a life-limiting, progressive illness with a life expectancy of six months or less. However, the full benefits of a hospice program’s expert medical care and compassionate emotional and spiritual support cannot be realized in days or weeks.
Too often, once people experience hospice, they “get it.” Yes, this is a good thing. However, it’s unfortunate when a family says, “We wish we would have known about hospice sooner.”
I understand the reluctance to talk about dying. The admission of our own mortality is a real downer. But, it’s one of the most important passages of our entire lives. There are so many ways to do it wrong. And, so much help available from professionals like you to do it right.
What we need is a pledge; a continued commitment to educate people about the value of care and support at the end of life. This education must extend to potential patients and their families (often key in helping to make decisions about healthcare for their loved ones), physicians and other referral sources. What’s needed is a constant flow of consistent messages in a highly visible manner.
Another step in the right direction is to encourage the discussion about planning well ahead of life’s final months. There is a way to “die well.” As professionals in a variety of facets of our healthcare system, we can help people choose a quality of life through the end of their life.
This is a pledge we’re making. Join us to bring the conversation out of the closet once and for all.