Monday marks the first reading of my new Palliative Care Bill in the House of Lords, marking the beginning of a comprehensive discussion around end of life care and hopefully, ultimately a change of law.
With 355,000 people a year in need of palliative care in England alone, this conversation seems long overdue. The recent 'Dying without Dignity' report highlighted the problems and failings of a system that has the knowledge of what needs to be done but fails to make it happen.
The main issues highlighted were poor communication with families - in some cases resulting in people losing a chance to say goodbye to the person they loved. Poor planning and fragmented, uncoordinated care, often compounded by inadequate out of hours services was another major concern, and poor pain management resulted in unnecessary suffering.
These findings are deeply upsetting and they are exactly what the Palliative Care Bill aims to correct. We need to identify and address the gaps and inefficiencies of the current system and ensure that all patients in need have equitable access to palliative care services around the clock and regardless of age, where they live, their level of education and type of illness.
Despite the UK being a global leader in the provision of palliative care services, there is a lot that needs to be done in order to be able to claim that patients, their families and their carers in this country get the care and support they deserve.
To achieve these goals, we need to ensure that all health and social care providers have received the necessary education and training in palliative care and are therefore ready to provide services of the highest standards.
We should never forget that people that experience serious or life-limiting health problems need to have access to pain and symptom control that would comfort them and help improve the quality of their lives. This needs to be a priority for every health and social care professional and a neglect of an individual analgesic requirements should be regarded as a failure to deliver on their duties.
The Bill also seeks to ensure patients' decisions about their treatment are at the heart of care. This will give the sense of power and control back to people especially in times of great uncertainty. All staff need to be trained to handle the sensitive communication between them, the person that is dying and their loved ones, providing emotional and psychological support at all times. Finally, the Bill will inject further flexibility and trust into the system as it will help resolve problems such as healthcare professionals' access to essential medication for palliative patients at all times and access to specialist advice for those with complex needs.
The Palliative Care Bill lays the foundations for a more efficient, humanised and universal palliative care system that will place the patient and their needs at the centre. Any conversation around assisted dying would only distract our attention from what is truly important - the fact that everyone at the end of life needs access to the expert. Through this access this will enable them to ensure that what they experience, and what lives on in the memories of those left behind, is the good death that we aim to make possible for everyone.
Today marks the beginning of a long journey which will hopefully result in law which sees universal access to palliative care when needed, with quality improved through greater education, training and research into the field.