Hospice bereavement support: Thinking outside the box

Published on Sep 20, 2021

Hospice care was created out of an innate need to go back to the basics. Dying at home, surrounded by family and friends, is the ideal of a “good death.” In the U.S., however, up until the 1970s, death was sterilized and restricted to a hospital setting, which caused a ripple effect of complicated grief throughout our culture. The hospice movement began as a response to this, championing the cause of providing necessary care to dying patients regardless of any cultural stigma or the general public’s discomfort with death and grief. 

As the world has become more complex, relationally, legally, and digitally, new organizations like Empathy are calling upon hospices to become more forward-thinking once again, putting the dynamic needs of grievers following the death of hospice patients into focus. While the typical hospice patient lacks familiarity and comfort with technology, the caregivers they leave behind are increasingly turning to the internet for answers to the many struggles they face. Empathy has created a one-of-a-kind, innovative, holistic application that provides grievers with information, guidance, and care whenever they need it.

The evolution of hospice care

Hospice was created to provide care and comfort to individuals nearing the end of life. This model of care came about as a solution to the less-than-ideal conditions that terminally ill patients were experiencing in hospital settings, and the grief experienced by their loved ones who witnessed their deaths. Hospice was able to provide pain management, education, and emotional support to the terminally ill patient and their family. With this came a softer grief process for bereaved family members, because they better understood what their loved one was going through.

The premise for the hospice model of care was that we could bring patients back to a time when individuals died peacefully in their home, surrounded by loving faces. After hospice was brought to the United States in the 1970s, patients and families felt the impact of this supportive care model. Over the last 50 years, as the world has made significant strides forward, hospices have followed suit by integrating many medical advancements and technology into the care that they provide. These updates sought to simplify workflow, improve efficiency, and enhance patient care by way of upgraded electronic medical records systems, integrations with local hospital digital charts, and telephone systems that offer care and guidance after hours.  

Then the world became suddenly even more digitally mediated thanks to COVID-19, forcing hospices to make further technological changes. The global pandemic propelled them to find ways to provide care to patients and families without being physically in front of them—a far cry from the genesis of the hospice model of care. From visits through video chat to the use of virtual reality to give hospice patients one last walk on the beach, hospice agencies found a way to make it work.

As the worst of the crisis has abated, hospices have continued to utilize and innovate technologies for hospice care such as predictive analytics, telemedicine, and virtual reality. These strides forward are significantly changing the way care is provided to hospice patients forever—in an amazing way.

“I am a firm believer in technology,” said Larry Graham, CEO and founder of Curo Health Services. ”It allows you to add another layer of care, whether that be telephonic, whether that be a centralized view of your charts, or being able to add on call center technology or data analytic technology to really understand what is going on with a patient’s illness and when they have the highest probability of exacerbation. Technology has a huge role to play in that.”

Advances in bereavement care

With so many advancements in hospice services’ care for patients and families, one may wonder, “What about bereavement?” We know that grief support is best served face-to-face in the presence of a community of grievers, showing the newly bereaved that they are not alone. During the pandemic, however, we found that virtual support can be effective for individuals who struggle to attend in-person programs for various reasons. And there are ancillary benefits as well: While in-person support is typically seen as the gold standard, it requires a bereaved individual to be very comfortable showing their grief to someone they do not know personally, which is not the case for everyone.

As hospices navigate the way forward, each agency must individually assess how it can adopt newer technologies while continuing to provide care that meets the needs of the bereaved, as required by NHPCO guidelines for standard bereavement care. This can include telehealth bereavement assessments, online support groups, or enlisting online platforms in the delivery of grief support through applications like Empathy.

Daring hospice agencies to move forward with Empathy

According to the NHPCO guidelines, in addition to meeting the specific needs of each bereaved individual, a hospice agency must also provide support for up to a year and have a coordinated program under which that bereavement care is provided. Because the needs of bereaved individuals are so varied, hospices often struggle to meet this standard of care and end up referring care for bereaved family members to an outside agency. While such referrals meet the minimum requirements for bereavement care, they fail to ensure that bereaved individuals will receive the customized care needed to feel fully supported through their grief journey.

By partnering with Empathy, hospices can innovate to better serve bereaved families—in a more personalized, accessible, long-term, and tech-enabled way. The Empathy app was built to support families in the days, weeks, and months after they lose someone. It helps with everything from planning a funeral to claiming benefits to dealing with an estate, through personalized, step-by-step guidance, automation of specific tasks, a secure vault for saving and organizing paperwork, and a real-time chat Helpline. It allows the bereaved to find the right professionals in their area, share tasks and information with family and friends, and listen to special audio episodes for expert guidance through the rollercoaster of grief. 

Today’s technology is amazing at solving seemingly intractable problems. Applying it to the realm of loss and logistics has the potential to alleviate some of the largest and most painful challenges that anyone can face. Loss is unnecessarily burdensome; Empathy eases that weight for everyone through a combination of technology and real-time human assistance. When hospices partner with Empathy to provide bereaved individuals with care and support throughout their grief, they get the benefit of and credit for providing customized care.

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