Dr Barbara Matthews, the 2018 recipient of the Muirhead Founders Friend Award, helps us understand more about Palliative Care in honour of World Hospice and Palliative Care Day.

World Hospice and Palliative Care Day was celebrated across the globe in October with Palliative Care also brought into focus by the Grahamstown and Sunshine Coast Hospice team who held their annual Ladies Breast Cancer Lunch at the Wyvern during the month.

Looking deeper to understand this discipline of medicine, we turned to Dr. Barbara Matthews who is a Palliative Care doctor in the Eastern Cape and a great supporter of Kingswood. In recognition of her service to the Kingswood Council, Barbara was awarded the prestigious Muirhead Founders Friend Award in 2018 and she is still Chair of the ICDP Trust which runs the Lebone Centre.

What is the difference between Hospice Care and Palliative Care?

The notion of hospice care is a very old one, dating back to the Middle Ages, where hospices were places of refuge for the sick and dying. Hospice Care formally came into mainstream medicine in the 1960’s with the work of Dame Cecily Saunders and the opening of the St Christopher’s Hospice in London. Their work focused on the whole-person care of patients at the end of life, and paid particular attention to pain and symptom management. Subsequently, Palliative Care has grown into a formal discipline of medicine, which addresses ALL the difficulties facing a patient and their family when confronted with a life-threatening condition – from the moment of diagnosis.

When it comes to palliative care, what do you think is important for everyone to know?

It is not only about end-of-life care. It is relevant from the moment of diagnosis. The most important thing about palliative care however, is that the person who is sick is always more important than the diagnosis the person has.

Palliative Care is not a field of medicine that one often hears or reads about. What do you believe is at the heart of good palliative care?

In South Africa this is a loaded question as there are so few palliative care specialist doctors and nurses. And providing good palliative care requires we have the people to provide the care. So in terms of health care service provision, we need to advocate for more people to quality in palliative care as a specialty. But for the people working in the field, good palliative care provision is a team sport – a well-qualified experienced team who can be mobilized around a person and their family when there is a life-threatening diagnosis. Even more fundamental, the heart of good palliative care centers on a person who needs help with the diagnosis they are facing, the specialist team mobilized around them, and the relationships everyone can make so no patient and family has to feel alone and adrift.

What would your advice be to someone who has a family member needing palliative care?

Reach out to a palliative care team early. The focus is not on end-of-life care, but on the issues confronting people and families from the moment of diagnosis.