Palliative care shows the importance of language

by Patrice Villars

The best learning experiences for me have been times when I come away questioning core assumptions about the work I/we do. As palliative care folks, we try to help people understand where they are in relation to their disease and what their hopes and goals are for care. We offer treatments and resources to match those needs through, in part, supportive communication.

What if, in our kind, well-meaning communication, we actually hurt or push away the very people we purport to serve? We may then feel misunderstood, even angry.

Diane Meier, MD gave an update on March 4th at the HPNA/AAHPM annual meeting entitled “Update on National Palliative Care News: How the Big Picture Affects You.” It was an enlightening, exciting, distressing update and call to action for the palliative care community. She made too many important points to discuss here, so let me pick one.

The new (to me) hot word in the political arena is “optics”. It’s all about how you see things – perception. Perception is in the eye of the audience. (Kind of like pain or shortness of breath is what the patient says it is.) We want and need to have a relationship with our patients and families who are part of the general public. We need them to perceive us as helpful and valuable both to serve them and to promote our vision of a holistic health care environment that matches patients’ preferences with appropriate care.

So why do our patients/families, through the media and through our work, often not see us as helpful and valuable, but, as my son once proclaimed me, as “The Mistress of Death”? What, we must ask if we want to sustain a future in this relationship, is our part?

Dr. Meier observed that we use language that associates palliative care with dying. Consistently. Language is important. Language creates perceptions and (may) define our relationships with the people we care about most. Consider that the tiny line in the proposed health care bill allowing physicians to be reimbursed for having a conversation every 5 years with their patients about advance directives died because of optics. It was perceived (used, twisted, misconstrued) by a few clever politicians that physicians were going to talk about dying and (logically, of course) talk people into dying. They quickly conveyed this idea to the general population, our audience – our audience who votes. Language. Optics.

Our audience – patients and families – often don’t want to hear about dying. Death and dying is scary. Scary equals reactionary sound bites (i.e. death panels) that can dash any hope we have of reasonable reform and ongoing open relationships. (Ex. Advance directives talks with your physician = dying = fear = death panel = killing Granny and babies with Down’s syndrome). And guess what other words also equal death to our audience? Terminal. Advance directives. End-of-life. Hospice. Yes, and even bereavement. As long as the majority of our patients/families (to say nothing of our health care colleagues) associate palliative care with dying, they will not have access to our services.

This is a lot to take in. You mean don’t use the words we have been using for decades to demystify the fear and denial of death in our culture? Isn’t this who we are? What about the movement we have come to birth, nurture and protect? Really, stop using those words?

On the other hand, if these words cause others to retreat from our services, how does it serve either of us? Does rubbing someone’s nose in something we feel is important make them want to be our friends? Probably not.

OK, let’s go back to our part in this relationship. In any relationship, intimate or professional, we make compromises. We decide how much we are willing to compromise to maintain the relationship and how much to hold our ground lest we lose our integrity, our selves. Like good palliative care folks, we must ask ourselves, what are the perceived benefits and anticipated risks?

Everywhere we merge the terms hospice and palliative care. Even our national organizations merge the words: Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association, American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Care Physicians, The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Yet hospice care is a subset of care for the dying which is a subset of palliative care. If we really want to separate the perception that palliative care is about dying, do we need to have separate national organizations? Separate certification and educational programs? Do we need to rename palliative care “supportive care”? This may seem outrageous to some. But we must ask, what are OUR goals? I certainly don’t have the answers, but I think the questions are really important.

Patrice Villars is a nurse practitioner at the University of California, San Francisco who blogs at GeriPal.

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  • Paula

    Important point. I worked as a writer for a large hospice organization for several years, facing this dilemma every day. How do you inform and comfort through educational and marketing materials without scaring the people you want to help?
    Of course, within the hospice, we were comfortable with the language, but had to be very careful when dealing with the outside world.
    I recall a skit performed at a state hospice conference, in which a nurse joked about a patient’s family asking her to carry plumber’s tools when she visited the home to care for their loved one, so the neighbors wouldn’t suspect what was really going on. We laughed, but it was really sad.

  • gerridoc

    Thank you for the article. “Supportive Care” or “Comfort Care” are good options, but why do we have to change the name? It is because Americans are in a major denial mode about end of life issues, and it is a shame that a group of professionals have to hide behind euphemisms.As a clinician, I have seen some very ugly responses when the subject of switching to “comfort measures” is brought up by physicians. (such as “Death Panels”)

  • BobBapaso

    Yes, how we use words is very important. Don’t say, “He is going to die.” Say, “I don’t believe he is going to live much longer. Be indirect, use simple word, don’t predict the future, and don’t use euphemisms.

  • Cyndi Cramer, BA, RN, OCN, PCRN

    Words are very powerful. Communication is everything in Palliative Care….
    If we change the name, the new name will grow the same stigma….hard to know what to do!
    But, we need to keep EDUCATING!
    There are still many many many physicians, healthcare workers, patients, families, politicians, media people, etc…who just don’t understand our words.
    We have to keep talking and keep making it simple but clear–and not scary.

    BobBapaso is correct in his suggestions!
    Avoid “Withdraw care” “We can’t do anything else for him/her” “What do YOU want to do”–instead of sharing our years of education and experience…The list is huge…

    I still (daily) run into folks who have never even heard the term Palliative Care and have no clue what it is. But others who equate it as the same as Hospice which they equate with the deathbad and last hours of living…

    No easy answers, but I think our only hope is education!

  • deborah

    Hi – really great post. Thanks for writing this. These are the points I tried hard to get across to the hospice providers that we work with – it’s about communicating benefits, focusing on how profoundly hospice and palliative care can improve the quality of life for those facing a life limiting illness and, as you said, about education. I write about the in house gatekeeper and educating her about end of life care in my blog Please check it out if you get the chance.