“The next five years will be about sharing excellence to make sure that there is hospice care for all, delivered in more settings. It’s about being more joined up and integrated with other health and social care organisations and community groups, so that the hospice approach is threaded through the work of a wider number of professionals and that we learn more about the support already delivered by citizens and communities.” Tina Swani, chief executive at Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice

Educating professionals, collaborating with others, and continuing to encourage conversations around death, dying and bereavement were just some of the recommendations made to enable hospices in the UK to have a sustainable future.

The suggestions came from leaders at Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice and influential members of The Lunar Society, after they recently met to discuss ‘A New Era of Hospice Care in our City’.

Taking place on Tuesday 5 March – the very day that Birmingham St Mary’s turned 40 years old – the debate was designed to highlight the current challenges and opportunities that face hospices across Birmingham and the rest of Britain.  

Representing Birmingham St Mary’s on the panel was chief executive, Tina Swani, and community development and partnerships lead, Sharon Hudson, who together discussed the importance or working more cohesively with other health care organisations and communities.

BBC WM broadcaster and chair of Birmingham Press Club, Llewela Bailey, was also present to share her personal experience of using Birmingham St Mary’s services, after her husband Martin was cared for at home in 2005. Chairing the debate was former home secretary, Jacqui Smith, now chair of University Hospital Birmingham.  

One of the biggest challenges the panel highlighted was how quickly the demand for hospice care is growing. Although people are living longer, they are doing so with more complex illnesses and conditions. As the older population increases, it means too many individuals are dying alone, unsupported, and unaware of the difference that hospice care can offer them.

This poses two issues: how can hospices meet this increasing demand but how can it also ensure that people – including those from harder to reach communities – know what kind of care a hospice can offer them and feel able to access it.  

Panellists and members of The Lunar Society concluded that to create a sustainable model of hospice care – and therefore to help meet growing demand – education and sharing expertise should play a leading role.   

As Tina Swani explained: “Over the past three years, referrals to Birmingham St Mary’s have increased by 40 per cent and we anticipate that this figure will continue to rise significantly. Whilst we’ve increased our voluntary funding and staff numbers to meet current pressures, educating others is playing a big part in making sure that more people can access hospice care whenever and wherever they need it.

“In the past year, Birmingham St Mary’s has educated over 1,700 health and social care professionals across the city, including teaching palliative care modules to medical students at local universities. We recognise that in the current climate, hospices can’t provide hands on care to everyone that needs it but by thinking innovatively and working in partnership with other health organisations, we can make sure that they have the skills and knowledge to support more people to live well when diagnosed with illness.”

Collaboration between hospices is also crucial, especially as health and social care workforces aren’t growing at the rate of demand. Tina added: “There’s a great synergy between hospices across the West Midlands and we’ll often work together in partnership, particularly when recruiting staff or raising awareness of the overall hospice movement. I truly believe that we are far better when we work in collaboration – it definitely makes us stronger.”

When asked how hospice’s can reach more people, the panel agreed that talking and listening is at the heart of the solution – especially when it comes to communities who experience barriers to palliative care. Sharon Hudson’s role at Birmingham St Mary’s is dedicated to reaching out and developing relationships with different groups across the city, such as the Bosnian or LGBTQ communities. Whilst talking is a must, Sharon states that it’s “listening and understanding their needs” that is absolutely vital. It’s not always about what hospices can teach community groups but instead, what they can teach hospices. 

Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice was founded in 1979 by former NHS matron, Monica Pearce. When the Hospice first opened, it could care for just 25 people on any given day. Four decades later and the Hospice is supporting over 400 individuals and their loved ones every day, providing care in people’s homes, in the community, and at the Hospice itself.

The Lunar Society is a dynamic forum that aims to influence change through stimulating ideas and broadening debate. Its ‘A New Era of Hospice Care in our City’ event was held at Birmingham St Mary’s Hospice in Selly Park.

Lunar Society member, David Clarke, created a podcast with Tina Swani which sums up the debate and discusses how hospice care is likely to change and evolve over the years. You can listen to their discussion here.