The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. The goal of health care is therefore not just to treat disease and extend quantity of life, but to also promote overall wellbeing and enhance quality of life.
But what exactly is quality of life?
According to the WHO, quality of life is “an individual’s perception of their position in life in the context of the culture and value systems in which they live and in relation to their goals, expectations, standards and concerns”. It is affected by their “physical health, psychological state, personal beliefs, social relationships and their relationship to salient features of their environment”.
A bit of a mouthful for sure. But the bottom line here is that while a person’s quality of life is affected by their health, it is about more than just their health. A person’s quality of life depends on what is important to them, where they have come from, and where they are going. In other words: what constitutes quality of life for an individual is defined by who they are.
What does all of this have to do with palliative care?
Palliative care is all about quality of life. Back to the WHO: “Palliative care is an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness”.
For many people, quality of life is just as important as quantity of life. For some, quality is more important quantity – particularly if their quantity of life is limited by incurable and/or life-threatening illnesses.
How does palliative care improve a person’s quality of life? The WHO definition suggests that it does so “through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual.”
However, the prevention and relief of suffering is merely the opening gambit of the palliative care approach. Alleviating suffering is a prerequisite to improving quality of life, but it is not sufficient on its own. In order to help patients and families live as well as possible, palliative care must also promote psychological, social and spiritual wellbeing.
This is only possible if palliative care clinicians are more than symptomologists or scientists-technicians. They must also be brave witnesses and loyal companions. “Don’t just do something, stand there.” And listen, with our hearts as well as our brains, as fellow human beings, sharing the human condition, travelling together along the journey of life.
To summarise: palliative care starts by seeking to find out what is the cause of a person’s suffering, but goes beyond this by striving to know who is the person suffering, in order to ultimately discover how to improve their quality of life, and help them to live as well as possible.