By Jessie Taylor
Less than 20% of people who need palliative care can access it in South Africa. It’s an essential part of managing a life-threatening illness, allowing patients and families to approach the end of life prepared and supported.
For this reason, organisations such as the Hospice Palliative Care Association of South Africa (HPCA) are offering education to healthcare professionals to ensure that patients are cared for throughout their illness.
Living life fully despite illness
World Hospice and Palliative Care Day is commemorated annually on 8 October and serves as a day to celebrate and support hospice and palliative care worldwide. The day acknowledges the importance of palliative care and campaigns for everyone to have access to it.
Palliative care provides holistic care to patients who have been diagnosed with a life-threatening or life-limiting illness. This care helps them live their lives as fully and comfortably as possible and often includes treating physical, emotional, spiritual or social symptoms.
South African human rights and social justice activist Mark Heywood explains: “Palliative care is an integral and essential human right. It is linked to dignity and should be part of the continuum of healthcare and not an optional add on or a luxury for a health system. However, palliative care is still primarily an NGO function that reaches less than 20% of people who need it in South Africa.”
South Africa’s shortage of palliative care facilities is not usual – around the world, access to this support is limited. Based on statistics from the World Health Organisation, around 40 million people need palliative care every year. But globally, only about 14% of people in need of palliative care receive it.
Far-reaching effects of the pandemic
But those able to access palliative care on home soil may even decrease, as the pandemic has severely impacted the sector.
Around 14 hospices have closed down due to a lack of funding since the start of the pandemic. In South Africa, hospices provide support to more than 100 000 patients with a terminal illness and their families every year. This has seen the HPCA embark on a crowdfunding campaign to prevent the further closure of care facilities.
There are currently around 89 palliative care organisations that provide hospice services in South Africa.
Leigh Meinert, the advocacy manager of the HPCA, says facilities have also been burdened with the additional costs of procuring PPE. The closure of facilities removes a wide range of holistic support, not only to the patient but to the family, by removing services such as social workers, home-based carers, nurses, doctors, psychologists and spiritual carers.
“Ninety-four percent of our patients are cared for in the comfort of their own homes. Hospice is not a grim, dark place where you go to give up hope. It’s this amazing network of care that’s available at a time when we all need it most,” said Meinert.
Extending the reach of palliative care
To grow the reach of palliative care in the country, the HPSCA has now developed an online course to introduce medical professionals to the field. The training is HPSCA accredited and registered at the University of Cape Town.
HPCA CEO Ewa Skowronska says: “We are committed to growing the reach of palliative care within South Africa. To do so requires advancements and increases in many areas, particularly funding. However, another critical component is that of professionally qualified resources who both understand and are able to deliver the life-enhancing palliative care so desperately needed by so many diagnosed with life-threatening or life-limiting illnesses. We are excited to offer this course to the many professionals who wish to expand the reach of this vital care nationwide.”
The course aims to provide a basic overview of palliative care and orientate and introduce health care providers to palliative care processes and principles.
“There is so much more work needing to be done, in addition to both maintaining and expanding upon the level of palliative care available in South Africa. Our goal with this course is to ensure that those who practice within this sector have access to the information that they need to work with palliative care requirements,” Skowronska says.
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