‘Gentle honesty’ can help end-of-life patients
Tallaght University Hospital

‘Gentle honesty’ can help end-of-life patients

A LOCAL palliative care doctor has highlighted how palliative care can help patients in their final weeks and months, and admitted some patients still seem fearful of end-of-life care.

Dr Stephen Higgins, who works in Tallaght University Hospital and Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross, spoke about the service to mark Palliative Care Week (September 11-17).

The theme for this year’s Palliative Care Week is ‘Living as well as possible’, and Dr Higgins explained that this is at the centre of his and his colleagues’ work.

“I think people are mostly frightened when they hear palliative care or hospice care,” he told The Echo.

“Some of them will seem fearful or nervous when they come to meet us.

“I think people are normally happy to go to specialists for things, like if they have a heart problem they’ll see a cardiologist, and if you have a serious, progressive illness, then we can help you.

“Having an incurable condition doesn’t mean nothing can be done. We do a lot of symptom control, like loss of appetite, pain or insomnia.

“We also give people the opportunity to ask us questions and give them answers that are honest and helpful. In palliative care, we very much deal in gentle honesty.”

A recent survey by the All Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care found that 75 per cent of respondents agreed that palliative care is about support for the quality of life of people with life-limiting conditions.

However, 43 per cent of those surveyed agreed that if they had to have palliative care, they did not feel ready to have those conversations or make those decisions.

For Dr Higgins, who has been working in palliative care for more than two decades, the value of end-of-life treatment became apparent to him when his father received hospice care in Harold’s Cross.

Dr Stephen Higgins who works in Tallaght University Hospital

After this, Dr Higgins decided to specialise in palliative care, and through seeing his father’s treatment and his own work with patients, he knows the benefit of it.

“Palliative care is often helping people retain their independence and autonomy in a situation where their health is deteriorating, and they might feel like they’re losing that,” he explained.

“I think people are genuinely very, very resilient. I’m 20 years working in this area, and I’m still amazed by what people can deal with and cope with.”

Palliative care staff can also assist patients who may feel reluctant to have conversations about their condition with their families, in case they upset them, by talking openly to them about their condition.

As for why he chose palliative care as his specialism, Dr Higgins said: “It sounds like a cliché, but I just like helping people.

“There are very few people that we can’t help, and usually the people we help have quick responses to treatment, usually in days, which is very different to other areas of medicine.

“We get an immediate response.”

It’s also hoped that this week’s Palliative Care Week will demystify perceptions of palliative care, and that it can improve the quality of life of people with life-limiting conditions for months and even years.

“I think it’s for people to be aware of what palliative care do,” Dr Higgins said. “I see people in their last days and weeks, but I also see a lot of people who are in their last months and years, and there’s lots that we can do for them.”

For more information on Palliative Care Week visit HERE.