Learnings from the Hospice UK conference 2023

Death, dying and communications.

Spending your birthday talking about death and dying at the Hospice UK Conference might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but I had lots of laughs (yes – really!) meeting up with teams from across the UK and learned a lot.

High-Rise work with a number of hospices across the UK and I am also a non-executive director at hospice purchasing group HQP, so it was useful for me to spend the day learning more about communications and the hospice sector.

It was a privilege to start the day hearing from Chief Medical Officer for England Professor Chris Whitty who told delegates in Liverpool that we should be aiming for ‘quality in older life – extending it is a side benefit’.

He talked about how the miracle cures that are often touted in the media aren’t the reality of medicine – and actually it’s about incremental, small improvements that make a difference over time. 

He encouraged the room to reflect that physical care has advanced far more than mental health improvement and treatment since the start of the hospice movement.

And that under-75 mortality and relative deprivation if overlaid on top of each other are basically the same map. 

Mr Whitty made an interesting point that the population is not ageing evenly across the UK – the cities remain young, but as people grow old and retire, they move out of the cities.

That means expertise in ageing and in hospice care are needed in places where it can be hard to recruit staff, something for HR and marketing teams to consider.

“The ageing population is growing in the periphery and how the hospice movement responds to that will be a challenge.”

He reflected that NHS care had got more and more specialised and one thing that the hospice movement had got right that other parts of the NHS can learn from is thinking about the whole person.

Mr Witty said: “I see a lot of people on wards who are in more pain and discomfort than they should be.”

He also gave some useful insights into national debates and the media, from the benefit of his experience helping lead the Government through the COVID response.

“We should not always expect a fair debate. Debates in the public domain are not always fair. We should be honest about that.”

He added: “Never worry about criticism from people you wouldn’t take advice from.” Advice I’m sure that has proved useful to him more than once.

A discussion around language

Another really useful session – especially ahead of next week’s Grief Awareness Week was the session on ‘The ‘D’ word and the ‘H’ word: do the words we use change the services we provide?’

Natasha Davis Whitehead from Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice encouraged delegates to be careful in the language they choose and caring of their audience.  

“Words are the most healing of tools. Words help us to move through our grief.” 

She pointed out that “shock tactics create distance and othering” and might not be the best approach if you are trying to create a genuine, long-standing connection to your audience.

I would encourage more hospice communications staff to attend the Hospice UK conference if they get the chance. There is so much useful content and food for thought – and it’s important for all of us, whether agency or in-house to learn from others and hear different perspectives when we can.