Dr. Leonie Herx on why palliative care is everyone’s responsibility

What does Division Head of Palliative Medicine Dr. Leonie Herx want you to know about palliative care?Headshot of Dr. Leonie Herx Palliative care is not only for those who are dying or at the very end of their lives. “Palliative care is focused on helping people live fully until they die (we like to call it medical aid in living or ‘MAiL’),” she explains. “And when it is integrated early in the course of a serious or life-threatening illness, it has been shown to improve quality of life, reduce anxiety and depression, reduce caregiver distress and may even help people live longer!”

Dr. Herx is an associate professor at Queen’s University and a member of the Department of Medicine in her role as Division Head of Palliative Medicine. Her academic work focuses on increasing capacity for access to high-quality palliative care locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. “This is done through program development, models of care, education standards, improving awareness regarding the benefits of early palliative care, and normalizing dying and death as a natural part of life,” she says. Clinically, she provides specialist palliative care services at Providence Care Hospital as Clinical Director of Palliative Care and an attending physician on the Palliative Care Unit, and as a palliative consultant at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), including Kingston General Hospital, Hotel Dieu Hospital, Cancer Centre of Southeastern Ontario and Quinte Health Centre outreach clinic. 

In great news, Dr. Herx describes the new pilot program for an Acute Palliative Care Unit at Hotel Dieu Hospital that provides specialized supports for patients with complex palliative care needs requiring acute care admission. “Once a patient’s symptoms are optimized, they will be discharged to the most appropriate setting of care, which may include home, other care residence, community hospital, hospice or end-of-life care-focused palliative care unit,” she says. “Acute palliative care admissions are typically short stays and patients may be earlier in their illnesses receiving disease-targeted treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy and may have full resuscitative or medically-focused goals of care. We have a fantastic team leading the program development for this new unit including lead physician Dr. Majid Iqbal and KHSC palliative care clinical nurse specialist Nancy Lee Brown. The unit hopes to improve flow for much-needed beds at Kingston General Hospital.”

Dr. Herx is hopeful for the future of palliative care in the region and in her role as Co-Lead of the Frontenac, Lennox & Addington’s Ontario Health Team (FLA OHT) priority working group of the Palliative Care Partnership, she is working hard to make these hopes a reality. “I hope that all Canadians with palliative care needs would have access to palliative care where and when they need it, be able to remain in their home communities and be supported so they can live fully until they die. To do this, we need robust, regional programs of integrated primary and specialist palliative care available 24/7 through a single point of contact, similar to the model of palliative care developed and endorsed through the FLA OHT. This not only improves quality of care, but also reduces healthcare costs!” 

An important part of this ongoing work is addressing the particular palliative care needs of underserved populations including Indigenous, homeless and vulnerably-housed, rural and remote, and incarcerated individuals, Dr. Herx explains. “Through education and capacity building, I hope we advance the provision of basic palliative care approaches – a ‘palliative approach to care’ as it is called – as a standard of care within all medical specialties and health disciplines in keeping with the Framework for Palliative Care in Canada,” she adds. “This requires palliative care competencies to be embedded in all health professional training programs, including medicine, nursing and social work. This is necessary to meet the growing needs of the aging Canadian population living with multimorbidities.”