How can we improve care for bereaved patients?

GP Dr Catherine Millington Sanders explains how practices can improve care for bereaved patients and how health professionals can help the UK Commission on Bereavement bring about wider policy change.

Dr Catherine Millington-Sanders
Dr Catherine Millington-Sanders

As GPs, we regularly experience the immediate and long-lasting mental, physical and social impact of grief on people’s lives. It’s normal for people to want support at different points after a bereavement, yet equity of access and availability of bereavement support varies significantly regionally and nationally.

Like birth, death is one certainty we all have in our lives. However, one thing that isn’t a certainty, is the offer or availability of bereavement support should we need it.

In my experience of both personal and professional loss and grief, it is crucial for people in their darkest hours, to know where they can turn to and when they do, that timely support is simple to access as well as being relevant to the individual’s needs.

UK Commission on Bereavement

It is for this reason that I recently agreed to be part of an independent UK Commission on Bereavement. The commission’s purpose is to review the experiences of, and support available for, people affected by bereavement through and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, and to make recommendations to key decision-makers, including the UK government.

The commission is independent of government and is made up of a group of 15 commissioners who were appointed by a steering group of charities including Marie Curie, Independent Age, the National Bereavement Alliance and Childhood Bereavement Network, Cruse Bereavement Care and the Centre for Mental Health.

Lots of work has been done over the years addressing the need to improve end-of-life care for people at both a local and national level. A project I was involved with launching a few years ago was the RCGP and Marie Curie Daffodil Standards which is a free, evidence-based, structured approach to help GP practices to consistently offer the best end of life care for patients.

Talking General Practice
Listen to our podcast Talking General Practice where we talk to Dr Millington-Sanders about end-of-life care and bereavement here.

However, one underserved area which has suffered a lack of thorough research is how we can support those who are bereaved in the UK. By working together we can come up with a multi-faceted approach to help more people secure tailored support when they need it and for primary care teams to be at the forefront in helping make that a reality.

How can we support bereaved patients?

Working with practices looking to improve the quality of bereavement support through Daffodil Standard 7 ‘Care after death’, these tips could make a difference in being able to encourage and foster consistent, effective support for our bereaved patients:

  1. A practice system to support identification of people who have been bereaved. Keep coding consistent within the practice team.
  2. A clear understanding by all practice staff of practice bereavement response when someone has been identified. For example, practice-led contact to follow-up, check on their support and sign-post to local bereavement support.
  3. Talk with your bereaved patients – ask what works well and what could the practice do to improve support?
  4. Appoint a practice lead (this does not need to be a GP) to track how the practice is improving over time. Consider improving equity of access. Share learning and celebrate successes.

There’s been a big focus as a result of the pandemic on death, dying and grief. It has exacerbated issues that were already prevalent and at the same time brought into focus what a big impact bereavement can have on people’s lives and their grief, if the support isn’t there for them.

How health professionals can influence change

All of the above brings me to one of the ways in which GPs and teams involved in supporting bereaved patients (clinical and non-clinical) can really help us with our recommendations for the report.

Your voice and on the ground experience is really important to help the commission make a difference. So please submit your own evidence of ways in which bereavement care can be improved in this country from your own experiences. We need to learn lessons from the experience of mass bereavement and there is no better time than doing that today.

To share your experiences of bereavement and contribute to the review being carried about by the UK Commission on Bereavement visit: bereavementcommission.org.uk/taking-part

If you’re currently affected by grief and need support, please visit mariecurie.org.uk/bereavement

  • Dr Catherine Millington Sanders is a GP the RCGP and Marie Curie national nlinical nhampion for end-of-life-care, a role in which she is leading the design and development of new general practice core standards for advanced serious illness and end-of-life-care, known as 'The Daffodil Standards'.

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