May 6 to 12 is National Hospice Palliative Care Week. In this Q & A, Head shot of Susan Blacker Susan Blacker, Senior Director, Cancer and Palliative Program Planning and Performance and newly appointed clinical co-lead for the Ontario Palliative Care Network, discusses  how she began her career in palliative care, her new role, and Sinai Health System’s central place in Toronto’s palliative care system. 

You’ve been working in hospice palliative care for more than 20 years. Can you tell us how you became interested in this field?
Many years ago, I was working as a social worker in an oncology outpatient clinic and also on general medicine and surgery units. I was interacting with patients and their families who were grappling with receiving a diagnosis of a serious and life-limiting illness, or undergoing treatments and struggling with symptoms and side effects, or those nearing the end of their lives. They needed help to anticipate and manage the major changes that were happening in their lives. They needed support in the grief and loss they were experiencing, and expert help to address the impact of the illness on their physical, emotional and even spiritual well-being.

That is when I first met a palliative care team. I was so impressed by how they approached whole person care and focused on the patients’ perspectives about goals of care. They focused on quality of life and what was most important to the patient. I began to learn all I could about palliative care and how I could become a champion to ensure that patients and families receive the care they need.

Palliative care has been in the news recently regarding care for people who want to remain at home. What are your thoughts about Sinai Health System’s role in this?
Sinai Health System has an incredibly important role to play in supporting patients, families and health care providers in achieving this goal. We are indeed unique in having such a comprehensive range of palliative care services available. We have palliative care specialists that provide care to patients during their hospitalization and once they are home. The Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care’s home care program is a key part of the Toronto palliative care system. And Circle of Care provides many important services and supports for those at home, including trained visiting hospice volunteers.

We know, however, that remaining at home will not be possible for everyone, and the palliative care unit at Bridgepoint is an essential option for those requiring this level of support.

I have been very pleased to be involved with the palliative care workgroup group for the Changing Care – Cultivating Change project that is engaging patients and family caregivers to better understand their experiences and ideas. These important interactions will help us further improve services offered through Sinai Health System’s palliative care program, and strengthen the leadership role our teams play in the broader palliative care system.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about palliative care, or something you want people to know about this area of care?
Many people think that palliative care means end-of- life care. Palliative in fact refers to an approach and philosophy of care A palliative approach is appropriate for any individual and/or family living with a life-limiting illness at any time – and it’s not just care provided by palliative care specialists. We should be careful not to use the term “palliative” as a label but rather recognize that a person may have palliative care needs, even while receiving therapies focused on modifying their disease.

End-of-life care refers to care for people who are expected to die in the foreseeably near future. It constitutes active care aimed at helping patients and families to prepare for death, ensure comfort, and to make care decisions that are consistent with the patient’s prognosis and goals of care.

You were recently appointed as a clinical co-lead of the Ontario Palliative Care Network. Can you tell us about this role?
As the Provincial Clinical Co-Lead for the Ontario Palliative Care Network, I will be co-chairing the Clinical Advisory Council – an interprofessional group of practitioners who play a key role in shaping clinical improvements in hospice palliative care. I enjoy sharing about our program’s successes, as well as learning about the innovations that have been developed across the province, and thinking about how those great ideas could apply at Sinai Health System.