The important role of Palliative Care 

Due to the aging population and the rising incidence of chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, the importance of palliative care is growing in New Zealand. The complex requirements of the population are assisted through palliative care.  

It is essential that people understand what services are covered by palliative care. Accessing these services can help individuals to live well with their terminal illness as well as providing reassurance to family members during this difficult time.  

What is palliative care? 

Palliative care helps enhance the quality of life for individuals with life-limiting or terminal illnesses and is available at any stage of such an illness. As the disease advances, end-of-life care becomes a critical aspect of palliative care. It helps individuals manage physical symptoms such as pain, and provides emotional, spiritual, and psychological support, personal care, and respite services. Additionally, palliative care specialists may provide counselling or bereavement support to both the individual with the illness and their family. 

The primary goal of palliative care is to alleviate an individual’s suffering and enable them to live comfortably with the highest quality of life.  

Palliative services can include:  

  • Pain management 
  • Provision of equipment and aids to maintain living at home 
  • Assistance for families to navigate difficult conversations about future planning 
  • Facilitation of informed decisions regarding future medical treatments that align with the individual’s goals 
  • Information regarding other supporting services like in-home care and financial support 
  • Support for emotional, social, cultural, and spiritual concerns 
  • Counselling and bereavement support 
  • Referral to respite care services. 

The importance of palliative care 

Consultation with palliative care specialists can help individuals understand their disease, anticipated symptoms, and the likely progression of this, along with the treatment options that may mitigate some of the symptoms. It can also present an opportunity to learn about the assistive equipment that may be accessible. 

Specialists can support individuals and their families to make informed decisions about their future. It enables the individual to articulate their preferences for healthcare, end-of-life care, and funeral arrangements, thereby easing the burden for all involved and ensuring that their needs are met. For instance, specialists can supply information about whether to pursue treatment despite painful side effects or whether to prioritise comfort and quality of life. 

Palliative care is most effective when considered in the early stages of an illness as it can enhance the quality of life for patients and can complement their ongoing treatment. It can also minimise the symptoms of the illness and subsequently reduce the likelihood of unnecessary hospitalisation. Palliative care plays a crucial role in helping individuals to cope with the symptoms associated with their terminal illness, such as pain, delirium, nausea, or breathlessness. Palliative care specialists can help reduce the suffering of people undergoing these symptoms, increasing their comfort during the final stages of their illness. 

Palliative care is crucial in providing emotional and spiritual support to individuals and their families. The emotional impact of a terminal illness can be significant, leading to feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation for all involved. Palliative care specialists are trained to provide counselling and other forms of emotional support to help patients and their families to cope. Furthermore, they may be able to provide spiritual guidance or accommodate cultural and religious beliefs, which can be of particular significance for those nearing the end of their life. 

What challenges exist for palliative care in New Zealand? 

Whilst palliative care is an important element of care, many challenges must be addressed to ensure that everyone in New Zealand is able access to high-quality palliative care.  

One of the most substantial challenges is the scarcity of palliative care specialists in rural and remote areas, where access to healthcare services, in general, is already restricted. 

Receiving a diagnosis of a terminal or life-limiting illness can be distressing and daunting for many, resulting in many people choosing to avoid discussing their palliative care or end-of-life options. Although initiating discussions about what may occur in the future can be exceedingly challenging for everyone involved, it can help alleviate stress and provide access to critical services required by the individual and their loved ones. 

Thinking about organising an end-of-life care plan? 

Palliative care is a vital component of healthcare, playing a critical role in enhancing the quality of life for those with life-limiting illnesses. The demand for palliative care services in New Zealand continues to grow, and end-of-life planning is a significant aspect of this. These plans could include the following:  

  • where someone wishes to die (eg. In hospital, in a hospice, at home),  
  • what kind of healthcare they wish to receive – also known as Advance Health Directives and Statement of Choices 
  • who should make healthcare and other decisions for them – also known as Enduring Power of Attorneys (EOPA) 
  • what financial matters need to be organised and who should do this 
  • whether the individual has a will, where this is stored and how has the ability to action  

Whilst discussing end-of life plans will always be difficult, it is vital that this is undertaken following a terminal diagnosis as it ensures that the wishes of the individual can be met. This is particularly important if the illness impacts the individual’s ability to make or convey their own decisions. 

For further information and advice about palliative care, it is best to speak to a GP, use the Health Navigator website or get in touch with Hospice New Zealand.  

Health Navigator provides extensive information about palliative care and the different services that are available in New Zealand.  

Hospice New Zealand also provides a range of services to support with end-of-life care.