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No-one dies alone

Alison Bunce talks about Compassionate Inverclyde, a programme aiming to enable and empower individuals and communities to help and support each other at times of increased health need, at end of life and in bereavement.

What is a compassionate community?

Prof Allan Kellehear and colleagues provide a helpful answer to that question in the “Compassionate City Charter” (2016):

“A community that publicly encourages, facilitates, supports and celebrates care for one another during life’s most testing moments and experiences…. and that recognises that care for one another at times of crisis and loss is not simply a task solely for health and social services but is everyone’s responsibility”.

In Inverclyde, we’re using shorter words, but that it basically what we’re trying to create. We’re working to build a “compassionate community” based on three things... compassion, help and neighbourliness.

Compassion is about people undertaking acts of kindness. Help is about both providing help, and enabling people who are in need to say ‘yes’. And neighbourliness is about ordinary people helping ordinary people.

Launched in March, the Compassionate Inverclyde Programme aims to enable and empower individuals and communities to help and support each other at times of increased health need, at end of life and in bereavement, recognising the importance of families, friends and communities working alongside formal services.

One way we’re planning to do this is through the No-one Dies Alone (NODA) programme...

NODA is an all-volunteer, grassroots program which provides support to those in their last hours of life who do not have family or friends available to be with them at this time.

NODA originated in the USA, when an American nurse Sandra Clarke failed to be with a patient who had asked her to be with him when he died. Sandra got caught up with other duties and when she returned to the patient’s room he had died. This troubled her for many years and she went onto develop the NODA programme.

I’m pleased to be involved in the first Scottish pilot of the NODA programme, at Inverclyde Royal Hospital. It will become one of over 200 hospitals across the world running the programme, joining over 200 hospitals in the USA, Singapore and Canada.

Through this and other initiatives, were hoping that the Compassionate Inverclyde will have a transformative effect on the community of Inverclyde, developing social capital, building community capacity and resilience and positively influencing the lives of individual community members.

Alison Bunce, Compassionate Inverclyde Programme Lead

how aware are we of the impact of caring for older people?

Katharine Ross discusses the enormous contribution made by front line support workers employed in care homes and care at home organisations to the delivery of palliative and end of life care for older people.

“you know, i’ve never actually really believed that death is inevitable.
i just think it’s a rumour.”

This quote from David Carridine – actor and martial artist - makes me smile. When asked about his attitude towards death, Carradine responded tongue in cheek and proffered the case that death is “just a rumour”.

If only! We know dying will come to us all, and most people reading this will have experienced the death of a loved one, or somebody significant in their life. The loss, the sadness, the devastating grief - all so very real and often so utterly overwhelming.

Death is happening everywhere; it’s most definitely not a rumour. In Scotland around 54,000 people die each year and over 200,000 people are significantly affected by the death of a loved one. In general, we are dying at older ages - sometimes accompanied by frailty, dementia and multiple medical conditions. The number of people dying each year is rising, driven by population growth. By 2037 the number of people dying each year will have gone up by 12% to 61,600. It is thought that up to 8 out of 10 people who die have needs that could be met through the provision of palliative care.

With this knowledge Scottish Care decided to undertake a significant piece of research at the end of 2016 which sought to explore and describe the experiences of front line support workers employed in care homes and care at home organisations who were involved in the delivery of palliative and end of life care for older people.

At four locations across the country my Scottish Care colleagues and I were privileged - and often moved to tears - listening to examples of compassionate end of life care. We heard extraordinary stories of physical, practical, social, emotional and spiritual support being given to older people - all of which was being delivered by dedicated, committed front line support workers who provide the largest proportion of palliative and end of life care in Scotland.

We captured extraordinary stories such as the care home staff team who formed a guard of honour as a resident left their home for the last time.

We listened while front line social care workers – all too often underpaid and undervalued - shared their experiences of caring for older people at the end of their lives, often with little or no specialised training. One participant said quietly:

“I want to be able to explain to somebody exactly what’s going to happen (when they die). I want to be able to stop someone being afraid”

We also heard the challenges involved in having open conversations about dying. As another support worker said:

“I don’t know what to say….it can be overwhelming. We try and say what we think is right. It just comes out.

…You feel like you’re apologising all the time”

I suppose what we really captured was the human impact of delivering care at the end of someone’s life, and of doing this in challenging conditions on a regular basis - for multiple people.

Indeed, a focus group participant was the inspiration for the title of our publication. “We are the trees that bend in the wind” is how this person described a workforce which adapts, changes and flexes to the journey of palliative and end of life care, and experiences it with the supported person.

But this phrase also relates to a workforce under sometimes intolerable pressure and strain, at risk of breaking, or at least of losing part of oneself in the process of providing end of life care. Delivering palliative and end of life care to older people requires highly skilled, technical and practical interventions. It also involves providing emotional support, a familiar face, a hand to hold, family liaison and so many more forms of care and support that cannot be captured in any job title, not least ‘a support worker’.

In our report, Scottish Care have made 12 recommendations. Some relate to the individual who is dying – for example the development of work which embeds a human rights-based approach to the exercising of choice and control at the end of life, especially relating to the rights of older people. Dying of frailty or dementia, for example, should have a specific pathway in the same manner as those which have been successfully developed for cancer and other conditions. Scottish Care believes the very real issues of ageism and resultant chronic underfunding of Scotland’s older people who need care and support must be addressed as part of this.

Other recommendations relate to the workforce, and to the policy conditions which ultimately dictate practice.

There has to be a greater emphasis on honest & open conversations about how we pay for and commission palliative and end of life care – especially for older adults. Can we honestly say that we adequately resource the social care sector to train its staff to an appropriate palliative level? Do we ensure sufficient time is given for a care at home support worker, to listen, to have open conversations, hold somebody’s hand, to comfort, provide love, to wipe a tear of fear away?

The answer is no.

Death is not a rumour; it’s very real and we need open, honest and progressive conversations about the delivery and funding of palliative and end of life care in Scotland as a matter of priority. Scottish Care welcomes the opportunity to work with The Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care – and others – to ensure this happens.

Katharine Ross - National Workforce Development Lead - Scottish Care. The Scottish Care report Trees that bend in the wind can be accessed here:

Trees that Bend in the Wind: Exploring the Experiences of Front Line Support Workers Delivering Palliative and End of Life Care

Grasping the Nettle

Mark Hazelwood reveals some of the thinking behind the SPPC's recently published report 'Grasping the nettle'.

Grasping the nettle aims to provide a clear consensus view on the way ahead for palliative and end of life care in Scotland.

In both polar exploring and public policy it is periodically a good thing to stop, take stock and consider carefully the direction of travel.

It is eight years since SPPC published its last sector-wide analysis of how to improve palliative and end of life care in Scotland [1].

Since then we've seen the first Scottish government action plan on palliative and end of life care, Living and Dying Well, the crisis in public finances as a result of an under-regulated banking sector, the demise of the Liverpool Care Pathway, the Francis Inquiry, and many very positive practical improvements in palliative and end of life care at the local level.

When the Scottish government made its welcome announcement in 2014 that it would produce a new strategic framework for action for palliative and end of life care, SPPC committed to supporting and informing the development of that strategy.

As the representative body for palliative care – with over 50 member organisations – we wanted to ensure that the experience and expertise of the people and organisations in our networks were brought to bear on the complex and large challenges needing to be thought through.

Policy and strategy are never sufficient on their own to achieve change, but they can be helpful. Conversely, a recent survey identified 'confusing strategies' as the number one barrier to change [2].

Grasping the nettle aims to provide a clear consensus view on the way ahead for palliative and end of life care in Scotland. Its purpose was to support inform and enrich development of the Scottish government’s strategic framework.

To that end, the structure of Grasping the nettle is based on the 3-step improvement framework for Scotland’s public services [3], so that palliative and end of life care issues are framed in terms which resonate with the Scottish government's wider public service reform agenda.

The vision articulated in Grasping the nettle is that Scotland will be a place where:

  • people’s wellbeing is supported even as their health declines
  • people die well
  • people are supported throughout bereavement.

In this vision – and throughout the report – we have tried very hard to achieve clarity of terminology and to shine a light on important differences of meaning which sometimes lurk behind stock phrases, creating a false impression of mutual understanding.

In producing the report, SPPC undertook many of the usual tasks of strategic thinking – an analysis of the world in which we are working, an assessment of where palliative and end of life care is at, an assessment of the main challenges and the things which need to change.

Engagement from our 50+ member organisations and other stakeholders has been excellent during a three-stage iterative process from May to November, which was overseen by a multi-disciplinary sub-group of SPPC’s council. Drafts were shared with the Scottish government at each stage, who welcomed the report as a very helpful input to their process of developing the strategic framework for action.

Perhaps the most difficult stage of thinking was to move beyond broad outcomes and to propose a set of specific actions which would achieve significant positive change.

The report identifies 38 actions – a busy agenda, but then this is a big issue and the scale of change required is huge.

The report’s proposals include – but also go beyond – specific issues such as education and advance care planning. In addition, we address leadership and the role of government and others in creating the conditions which support and enable change.

Taken together we believe the proposed actions create the necessary conditions for change, describe specific changes required and specify a broad framework of accountability.

This blog is by Mark Hazelwood, Chief Executive of the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care.


  1. Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care. Palliative and end of life care in Scotland: the case for a cohesive approach. Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care; May 2007. Available from:
  2. Health Services Journal. The crowd speaks: Top 10 barriers to change. HSJ; 10 February 2015. Available at:
  3. The Scottish Government. The 3-step improvement framework for Scotland’s public services. The Scottish Government; 2013. Available at

The Silent Treatment

Drama, like palliative care, is concerned with exploring crises and change. So often characters in plays, like patients, find themselves facing shock, uncertainty and conflict. I have spent much time over the years thinking about how to meet these challenges and help patients and their families.

My son is a drama lecturer and we’ve often talked about how great playwrights like Shakespeare and Pinter can help clinicians to learn more about empathy and compassion. Although there has been work on the value of Applied Drama in a medical context, there has been little on the intersections between theatre texts and clinical practice. We decided to write a book exploring key areas of end of life care and relating these to insights from theatre texts.

The selection of plays was not easy - the dramas are challenging and often upsetting in their focus on suffering. In the busy clinical world of end of life care ethical dilemmas are heightened, and plays such as these highlight some of the key tensions in the human condition.

Within our book, we explore how particular plays provide useful lessons in enhancing empathy and compassion in a clinical context. As we all know, compassion is a vital element in the silent treatment and provision of effective care. The plays also illustrate the potential for good communication to help and to heal in time of crisis. From the time of the Greek tragedies to the present day, we owe a debt of gratitude to the authors of the plays who continue to teach us about communicating in a sensitive way.

Called Enhancing Compassion in End-of-Life Care Through Drama : The Silent Treatment, one of the themes the book explores is use of silence. Silence often drives the plot forward and creates tension for the characters. Some of the most powerful moments in the plays are those that take place without dialogue; for instance, in Journey’s End, when Stanhope comforts the dying Raleigh simply by moving a candle nearer his bed.

We hope the book will be a springboard for a wider consideration of how theatre can help healthcare professionals to increase their understanding of the dynamics and demands of end-of-life care. We wanted to show how theatre texts can engender creative problem solving ideas which promote an empathic approach to end-of-life care. Of course, as well as reading the book, I’d encourage people to attend performances of the plays - theatre text is only a formula for an act that should be live and engaging in the spirit of the moment.

This blog is by Dr David Jeffrey, Honorary Lecturer in Palliative Medicine , University of Edinburgh. The book he refers to is:

Enhancing Compassion in End-of-Life Care Through Drama : The Silent Treatment by Ewan Jeffrey, Lecturer in Drama, Queen’s Belfast and David Jeffrey Honorary Lecturer in Palliative Medicine, University of Edinburgh. Foreword by Professor Steve Field. Deputy National Medical Director, Health Inequalities, NHS England. Radcliffe Publishing , London 2013 CPD Certified.

The plays and themes referred to in the book are:

King Lear, William Shakespeare (1606) - Communication

The Caretaker, Harold Pinter (1960) - Care

Journey's End, RC Sherriff [1928] - Connection

Antigone, Sophocles (441 BC) - Choice

Little Eyolf, Henrik Ibsen (1894) - Change

All My Sons, Arthur Miller (1947) - Concealment

Blasted, Sarah Kane (1995) - Crises

Cloud 9, Caryl Churchill (1979) - Complexity

Behzti, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (2004) - Culture

An international exercise in compassion

Some people may think that I, and other ‘pioneers’ of hospice / palliative care, were alive with the dinosaurs.

Those far-off days brought much pleasure as well as challenge, though no-one could call them easy. Since we started planning in 1968 there have been many successes, and more to be proud of than we ever thought possible.

The comparative success of our ‘movement’ owes much to the national, international and professional organisations that have worked over the years to promote palliative care. In particular The International Association for Hospice and Palliative Care (IAHPC), has played a huge role, through its dedication to encouraging the development of palliative care worldwide.

The IAHPC has had its work cut out – so many people see palliative care as luxury care, and therefore very far down their priority list. This has meant endless negotiations with national and international leaders at political and professional levels, often with few results after 20 to 30 years.

Other major obstacles have been dose ceilings set for opioids and, persisting to this day in nearly half the countries of the world, the belief that opioids inevitably cause dependency addiction.

Now (I am tempted to say 'at long last' ) the WHO is throwing its authority and political influence behind us. The WHO Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases 2013-2020 includes palliative care as one of the areas proposed to Member States. The WHO will soon publish a Global atlas of palliative care in collaboration with the Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance. And next week a report will be submitted to the WHO Executive Board on the growing need for palliative care services. The report broadens the scope of past efforts, to address the need for palliative care for people with conditions other than cancer.

But with this backing comes the reminder that 21 million people need palliative care each year and 42% of the world’s countries have no palliative care provision whatsoever.

We also know that only so called ’developed‘ countries teach palliative care in medical and nursing schools, that close on 50% of countries do not make opioids available, and that palliative care is a recognised specialty in only 10 countries.

Can we in Scotland do anything to help? The answer is a resounding YES!

  1. We can make provision for a doctor or nurse from a developing country to spend at least two weeks in a Scottish palliative care service. They should see everything we do, with 30 minutes each day spent with individual key members of our team in a Q&A session.

I know from experience this is an exhausting task for all concerned - it is not an excuse for a holiday for the visitor, and it brings no income to the unit. But the experience can be so valuable. If sufficient units were willing to do this it might attract funding from an interested charity.

  1. Secondly, palliative care doctors, funded by IAHPC, can go to a struggling unit / service abroad for a minimum of two weeks. There, they can demonstrate, teach and explain every aspect of palliation care provision to those working in that service

Once again this is no holiday – flights are at budget rate, accommodation basic, the hours are long – in fact this scheme almost came to a stop because so few doctors were prepared to make such sacrifices!

  1. My third suggestion is that we develop twinning schemes whereby units in a developing country are twinned with units of roughly similar size and staffing in a Scotland. Both parties would agree to be in regular and frequent contact with their ‘twin’, by email & Skype, as well as sharing with each other clinical problems, teaching material, specimen examinations papers, management problems, staff morale tips, and information about negotiations with government.

It is important to appreciate this is of most value when services are at roughly the same stage of development. It is a sharing exercise, both services being ready and eager to befriend and help each other.

A final challenging question:

Palliative care has always been an exercise in compassion, in caring for those in desperate need. Should that compassion not extend to our unseen friends abroad who are currently finding it even more difficult to get recognition than we did back in 1968?

I believe so.

This blog is by Dr Derek Doyle OBE, Honorary President of the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care. Recognised worldwide for the contributions he has made to palliative care, he was the first Medical Director of St Columba’s Hospice, the first Chairman of the Association of Palliative Medicine, the founding Editor in Chief of Palliative Medicine and Senior Editor of the first three editions of the Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine.

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