Our People in Profile: Senior director Dr. David Henderson views palliative care as ‘most important part of medicine’ he’s practised

Dr. David Henderson is NSHA's senior medical director for integrated palliative care.
Dr. David Henderson is NSHA's senior medical director for integrated palliative care (courtesy of CBC).

What is palliative care?

“That’s the million dollar question,” answered Dr. David Henderson.

As Nova Scotia Health Authority’s senior medical director for integrated palliative care, a large part of Dr. Henderson’s work is answering that question for NSHA staff, physicians and patients – which isn’t an easy task.

Not only is palliative care considered a specialty of medicine; it’s also a basic component.

“It really focuses on the person and their family living with a life-limiting illness to try to help them improve upon and live their life with as much quality as possible until their time comes,” Dr. Henderson explained.

“It’s focusing on the person’s life, their goals and the people they care about; it’s about exploring their fears and helping them to understand what’s normal during the dying process and how we can help support them.”

Although the work is difficult at times, palliative care touched Dr. Henderson’s heart in a way that stayed with him during medical school.

“It felt like the most important part of medicine that I had done,” he said.

Now, Dr. Henderson enjoys the rewards of this profession daily – especially the people.

“People are interested in talking about the relationships they’ve had, their family and the life experiences that they’ve had,” Henderson said. “We’ve been able to hear amazing stories from lots of wonderful people. At the end of the day, that’s where our treasures actually live.”

But it’s not only the patients who stand out in palliative care; it’s also the staff.

“There are a lot of incredible people working in this field in Nova Scotia,” Dr. Henderson said.

“There has also been a lot of great innovation here that’s being recognized as such across Canada, and even internationally.”

These dedicated health care professionals and volunteers are working hard not only to support their patients, but also to raise awareness about their field.

Many people believe that palliative care is only provided in the last days and weeks of life – when curative treatments are no longer available – but that’s not the case.

Most health care professionals provide palliative care to some extent, but if the situation calls for additional support, the specialist palliative care teams around the province are there to help.

“There are so many people who are afraid of palliative care because they think it means I’m dying tomorrow, but you don’t have to be to access palliative care services,” Dr. Henderson clarified.

“In the programs that I work with, it’s not a time-based program, but a needs-based program.”

People can access a specialist palliative care service for specific issues and potentially be discharged when the issues have resolved or are stable.

This is still unclear for many physicians, too.

As Dr. Henderson said, “palliative care is there to help support them in caring for the person that they’re trying to care for.

“We want our health care colleagues to see specialist palliative care teams as their ‘phone-a-friend’ when they have a more complex case they want support with.”

Dr. Henderson and his team help to ensure patients have a better quality of life based on what their wishes and goals are – both in hospital and at home.

Thank you for your dedication, Dr. Henderson.

To learn more about palliative care, visit www.nshealth.ca/content/palliative-care.