Most people spend more time planning their vacation than they do planning for their untimely passing. That sobering reality has a direct effect on the medical field and end-of-life decisions made by physicians, patients and their families. Some find themselves in the intensive care unit of a hospital having this intimate conversation with their doctors and loved ones for the first time. Even some physicians don’t realize the variety of services hospice offers and may not want to bring up the topic prematurely with patients and their families. As a result, young physicians often learn about hospice services on the job and may refer patients after it is too late to take full advantage of what compassionate care can offer.
Dominic Vachon, director of the Ruth M. Hillebrand Center for Compassionate Care in Medicine in the University of Notre Dame’s College of Science, says over 200 Notre Dame graduates go to medical school each year and many others enter other health professions.
As the director of a center focused on preparing undergraduate students interested in careers in the medical profession, Vachon has found that not all medical schools are providing adequate training in the area of compassionate, hospice and palliative care. Vachon says, “A partnership with the Center for Hospice Care (CFH) was a natural fit to support the University’s efforts to better prepare undergraduates for future careers in the healthcare field.”
The course was made possible with the support of the Reich Family Endowment for the Care of the Whole Patient. The Reich’s established the endowment in honor of their son, who died from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Several conversations with representatives from the family and CFH staff pointed to a collaborative effort to promote greater awareness of cancer, palliative, and hospice care.
Course Popularity and Impact
An interdisciplinary team of physicians, social workers, nurses, and other hospice professionals offered the first-ever Introduction to Hospice and Palliative Care class at the University of Notre Dame in November 2011.
Initially Vachon and Mike Wargo, vice president and chief operations officer of the Hospice Foundation, anticipated the one-credit course would be offered to 20 to 25 students as a daylong Saturday workshop. The course included three meals during the day in order to maximize time with the undergraduate students interested in careers in medicine.
The planning faculty team reported that 90 students from the Pre-Professional Studies program, among other majors, attended the one-credit course held on November 12. The participants included theology, psychology and science majors, as well as students who planned to become hospice volunteers.
The daylong course featured discussions, lectures and films to present the information. Evaluations were distributed at the end of the day. On a scale of one to five with five being the highest, over 95 percent of the participants rated the course a four or a five.
One student commented on the powerful, personal impact of the course, “Thank you all very much! [The course] was way better than I expected. [It] potentially altered what I plan to do with my life. In all seriousness.”
Mark Murray, president and CEO of the Center for Hospice Care said, “The staff enjoyed teaching the class. The students really got it! They were sponges. You could tell there was a real connection made between the staff and the course material.”
Wargo and Vachon plan to offer the course again in 2013.