Engaging Faith Groups Supports Hospice Outreach

Hospices that engage with religious leaders and faith communities can boost their public outreach to bring patients into hospice earlier, promote advance care planning as well as increasing market share among unserved populations. 

Hospices nationwide work with faith communities to educate the public about the benefits of hospice care and to provide spiritual care to patients and families. They can also help resolve patient and family concerns that ending curative treatment could conflict with the tenets of their religion.

Religious groups also often hold fundraisers to collect donations for hospices in their communities and encourage volunteerism.

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“When we really started thinking about what was going to make the most sense to make [efforts to improve serious illness care] effective, it was certainly public policy, public education, public engagement in addition to [payment models],” said Tom Koutsoupmas, co-founder and co-board chairman for the Center to Transform Advanced Care (C-TAC) said at that organization’s recent National Summit in Minneapolis. “But engaging the faith community was at the very top. It’s how you reach people.”

The support of faith communities helped support the growth of hospice in its early days. When the Medicare hospice benefit was introduced in 1983, it struggled to find traction among a public that was unaware of hospice or skeptical of ending curative treatment. The word about hospice care and its benefits initially spread largely due to outreach to church communities spearheaded by the Rainbow/Push Coalition in Chicago, Koutsoumpas explained.

Hospices interact and partner with faith groups in a number of ways.

In California, the Hospice of Santa Cruz County participates in the Partners in Caring program, with holds luncheons for staff and religious leaders to discuss collaborations to support their members who are facing serious illness or the end of life.

Hospice of the Valley in Decatur, Ala., has developed a program called “Watchmen,” that provides training to faith group members who serve as liaisons between the hospice and the community, as well as promote public education programs. The hospice also holds and event called “Hospice Sabbath” among community faith groups every November that includes sharing of information and resources about hospice with the public.

Engagement with faith communities has also proven to be an effective strategy for reaching underserved communities, particularly among minorities.

African Americans, for example, are twice as likely to choose aggressive hospital treatment at the end of life than Caucasians, research indicates. In one study, researchers held educational gatherings at predominantly African American churches that included discussions of hospice.

The researchers found that partnerships between hospices and religious institutions can improve utilization among those underserved demographics. These collaborations help address what the study identified as the top two barriers to utilization: lack of knowledge about hospice and fears that ending curative treatment would contradict spiritual beliefs.

“There is a crucial role of faith communities in reaching and educating and supporting people.You have to be lucky in this country to receive the right care, and certain populations have to be even more lucky,” Diane Meier, M.D., executive director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care, said at the C-TAC National Summit. “The same populations that don’t get good care because of structural racism and violence and income inequality are the same populations who are much less likely to receive palliative care in spite of the fact that we know that it helps people live better, live longer, helps them avoid bankruptcy from unnecessary costs, stay out of the hospital, and stay in their home.”

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