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New ways that palliative care offers patients end-of-life comfort

By: Pauline Chan, Health Videojournalist, CTV News Toronto

Fears of a surge of COVID-19 patients in life-threatening condition prompted some hospitals to begin training staff not usually involved in end-of-life care.

And with isolation measures preventing family members from joining patients in their final hours, medical staff have been stepping up to fill that role.

“We are visitors in our patients’ lives and their families’ lives at times when they are most vulnerable. We take that responsibility very seriously,” says palliative care specialist Dr. Amir Ginzburg at Trillium Health in Ontario.

Dr. Ginzburg says staff often hold a patient’s hand to give them the same comfort a family member would. And technology is also helping to bring family members to the bedside.

Trillium Health, as well as the University Health Network, have been buying iPads and other technology to do this.

“We’re providing digital enabling technology - FaceTime, Zoom, scheduled virtual visits, to make sure that that connection, which is so important to healing, remains ever present,” says Ginzburg.

Dr. Ebru Kaya at UHN says staff are taking on the role of videographers in some palliative cases.

“In some cases we might end up recording a message from a patient on a smartphone or we might be able to dictate a message that we then forward to the family,” she says. It helps them to “share cherished memories together” and create some form of legacy.

Trillium Health does allow family members to visit in person during a patient’s final hours. They can also designate a specific staff member to attend to a palliative patient in place of family.

Dr. Kaya says offering virtual services in palliative care isn’t ideal but patients and families are grateful that at least communications can remain open.

“Palliative care is about making sure that we improve the quality of life and symptom management for patients,” she says. “We’re not just looking at their physical needs but also their social needs, their psychological needs, their emotional needs. So really a whole person-centred approach to care.”

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