Academic journal article Communication Studies

Empathy and Social Support for the Terminally Ill: Implications for Recruiting and Retaining Hospice and Hospital Volunteers

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Empathy and Social Support for the Terminally Ill: Implications for Recruiting and Retaining Hospice and Hospital Volunteers

Article excerpt

Whether the goal is to save money or simply provide more alternatives, rising medical and health care costs and a continually growing elderly population have resulted in increased attention to alternative health care practices. One practice that is becoming more mainstream than alternative is the movement in medicine toward palliative care for the terminally ill. Hospice services in particular have become an accepted alternative for terminally ill patients. Patients are often attracted by the individual attention of interdisciplinary team members who focus on the physical, mental, social, and spiritual needs of those who are dying. Interdisciplinary hospice teams are supplemented by unpaid volunteers who provide a range of services to hospice patients and their families. While hospices depend on their volunteers, little research has been done to examine the role and contributions made by this important group (Field & Johnson, 1993). The potential gain to be derived from this research is considerable: equipped with research findings, health care providers in both palliative and medical professions can better understand how informal and formal social support processes can complement each other. Subsequent training interventions can be introduced to improve the quality of care that patients receive. Specifically, the goal of this study was to learn more about how hospice volunteers communicate with their patients by comparing them to a group of volunteers who work in a traditional hospital setting. Although hospice volunteers have been shown to be more empathic than members of the general population (Wilkinson & Wilkinson, 1986), it remains to be seen if this characteristic is equally indicative of hospital volunteers. This study also compared hospital and hospice volunteers with regard to their proclivity for providing emotional and instrumental social support. Finally, the role of empathy in these two support processes was examined. As Parrott argues, "There is a gap between what is known about communicating social support and the inclusion of this knowledge and information in health care policies and programs" (Parrott, 1996, p. 415).

HOSPICE VERSUS CONVENTIONAL CARE

Hospice is defined by the National Hospice Organization as a "model for quality, compassionate care at the end-of-life ... [H]ospice care involves a team-oriented approach to expert medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support expressly tailored to the patient's needs and wishes" (National Hospice Foundation, 2000). Hospice care is becoming a more popular and viable option for terminally ill patients and their families, as demonstrated by the rise of hospice admissions from a little over 150,000 patients in 1985, to the 700,000 patients admitted in 1999 (National Hospice Foundation, 2000). The philosophy behind palliative health care in general, and hospice specifically, is that the interdisciplinary hospice team cares for those patients who no longer respond to traditional medical treatments. The goal of hospice, rather than prolonging the patient's life, is to provide the best quality of life for the patient and for the patient's family. Patients typically are referred to hospice when they 1) have less than six months to live, and 2) decide to forego more curative medical efforts.

The term 'hospice' should not be understood as a physical place where people go to die, but as a type of health care with a philosophy distinct from traditional hospital care (Hayslip & Leon, 1992). Hospice patients can be cared for in their own homes, as well as in hospitals, nursing homes, or long-term care facilities. Since the primary difference in philosophy between hospice care and traditional medical care is a focus on quality of life rather than to prolong life, every effort is then directed toward making the patient more comfortable and providing support to the patient and to the patient's family (Marrelli, 1999). …

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