Pet Programs Diversify Hospice Services and Boost Volunteerism

In a crowded market, hospices increasingly seek diverse ways to set themselves apart and remain competitive. An emerging tactic is to augment traditional care models to be more inclusive of patient and family needs, including support for their pets. Pet programming has become another way for hospices to expand their services and boost volunteerism.

Pet services provide reassurance and a continued bond for patients through assistance in daily and ongoing care such as grooming or veterinarian visits, as well as long-term needs in rehoming or fostering a pet. An owner remains connected with their pet throughout the scope of their hospice care and has the opportunity to be involved with their pets’ next steps.

“The biggest anxiety for hospice patients with pets is what will happen when they can no longer care for them,” said Michael Ferris, managing partner of Healthcare Strategica. “Relieving this anxiety gives these patients a higher quality of life and lets them focus on their other needs. It’s a way to address the total needs of a hospice patient for a more holistic look at all aspects of care and consider more than just their medical issues.”

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Hospices that leverage complementary therapies and ancillary services such as pet care and placement stand to distinguish themselves from competitors and build market share. These programs have also boosted volunteerism and philanthropic fundraising for some hospices. 

Under the Medicare Conditions of Participation, volunteers must account for 5% of a hospice provider’s patient care hours. Hospice providers often consider volunteers to be a member of their interdisciplinary care teams along with nurses, chaplains, social workers, the medical director, and other professionals.

Hospice volunteers provide more than 19 million hours of service annually. The estimated financial value of a hospice volunteer’s time is an estimated $24.69 per hour, according to the National Hospice & Palliative Care Organization (NHPCO).

Meeting the Medicare volunteer requirement can be a struggle for hospices due to the time and expense of recruiting, on-boarding and retaining their volunteer base. Pet services can expand a hospice’s volunteer opportunities and interests, according to Ferris.

“Providing pet services is a great way to make volunteer programming easier to get involved with, and more accessible and appealing to a greater volunteer audience,” Ferris told Hospice News. “In terms of marketing to patients and families, spreading awareness that a hospice offers pet services becomes a part of breaking down misconceptions of hospice care to families and letting them make peace with the care a loved one needs. From a business standpoint, it is a way that hospices can continue to make the case for referral support and also speak on the benefits of complimentary services.”

Hospices have also found that pet services also expands philanthropic funding opportunities into areas a hospice otherwise wouldn’t directly be able to access.

Many nonprofit hospices use philanthropic dollars to finance programs that benefit patients and families, such as palliative care programs, end-of-life care for the homeless or low-income patients, telemedicine programs and equipment and other offerings. 

Nonprofit advocacy groups in the space have formed to support hospices in their efforts to develop pet service programs, such as Pet Peace of Mind. The organization recently co-hosted an event for Congress members and staff on Capitol Hill in conjunction with the NHPCO and other advocacy groups.

Rep. Jim Panetta (D-Calif.) greets representatives of Pet Peace of Mind and NHPCO at an educational event about hospice care on Capitol Hill.

“This kind of programming gives a new way for hospices to discuss this part of the life cycle with donors. It offers a new twist on tapping into an entirely different donor pool for hospice funding support,” said Dianne McGill, president and founder of Pet Peace of Mind. “It’s about highlighting that hospices are about living in comfort and hope in this stage of life. The benefits of adding complimentary services such as pet care offers a hospices a valuable edge in an evolving market, and an invaluable ease for patients and their pets.”

As with any new service, incorporating pet care programming involves careful consideration in terms of volunteer training and assessing the specific needs of patients and families. Pet care volunteers must be vetted and trained just as any other hospice volunteers, and hospices must decide whether they should incorporate pet care training into their general onboarding process or if they will offer separate pet-focused training, according to McGill.

“The absolute number one benefit of pet care programming is improved patient experience,” McGill said. “The benefits also touch several other important areas. It becomes a differentiator in terms of setting your hospice apart in the market and raising visibility to patients.”

Written by Holly Vossel

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