Level of palliative care affects not just the patient but families too

“SO why did you choose palliative care?” I was speaking to Brain Nyatanga, a doctor who was born in Zimbabwe and has dedicated his 30-year career to caring for people in the closing chapters of their life. “When I first went into palliative care wards,” he told me, “I had a real sense of peace and felt that I could make a real difference to these people’s lives.” 
And make a difference he has. After moving from Zimbabwe to the UK three decades ago, he has worked in hospitals, hospices and people’s homes. He is one of those gifted people who has both a tender heart and brilliant mind. Yet few people want to talk to him about his passion. 
Some readers may find the words ‘palliative care’ so uncomfortable that they will want to turn the page. Death remains a taboo topic in the 21st century, but it really oughtn’t be.
I met Brian last week while at a conference attended by doctors, nurses, charity workers and patients from across the globe. From the USA to Hong Kong to the Cameroon to the Cayman Islands, everyone agreed that end-of-life care has an image problem. The word ‘palliative’ means ‘to soothe or relieve’ and is a specialised field of medicine that deserves the best doctors, nurses and carers. 
TV and films portray palliative care as a doctor injecting someone with huge doses of morphine, but the profession is about giving relief from all the symptoms and stress of any serious illness. The goal is to improve the quality of life for not just the patient, but their family, friends and loved ones. 
A growing number of people think that palliative care professionals should be among the first people you meet when you are diagnosed with any life-threatening illness. It is not about sending you to sleep before you pass away – these people are experts who care for the whole person. They can offer emotional and psychological support, suggestions about lifestyle and help at home, as well as advice about medicines to take (or not take).
In the UK we are fortunate to have good palliative care services. A 2015 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked the UK first in a world league table for palliative care. Beating the USA and all the European, Asian or African nations, this accolade is testimony to the incredible efforts of our NHS and charity-funded workers. Yet there is still much more that needs to be done. 
Last year, research by the charity Marie Curie and NHS England uncovered that nine out of 10 hospitals offer no round-the-clock palliative care service. As Dr Adrian Tookman, clinical director at Marie Curie, puts it: “Care of the dying has no respect for time… When this care is missing, people suffer, and this suffering can live long in the memory of those they leave behind.”
The quality of palliative care is improving and will continue to do so – but only if we make it. Charities, such as Hospice UK, Macmillan and Marie Curie help to bring it out of the shadows and campaign for more resources. By supporting voluntary organisations we can make a huge difference. 
We should also be brave enough to ask our doctor for palliative expertise whenever we or a loved one face a life-threatening illness – not just if an ‘end-of-life’ condition is looming. Importantly, it might be time that palliative care deserves a rebrand so that it doesn’t sound so frightening. Perhaps hospices could be called ‘wellness centres’? Health is not just about living longer, but about making every day we spend on this planet full of well-being and joy.