Focus on caring

  • November 23, 2007
{mosimage} In Canada, all too often, the debate over “health care” focuses on dollars and cents. It is about technical fixes, efficiencies and accountability. All important things, surely. However, rarely is it ever about the second word in that phrase --— care.

Yet, in the great history of health care in Canada, “care” has often been paramount. Especially in the part of that history dominated by Catholic religious orders of men and women, the motivation has been the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “When I was sick, you took care of me.” This emphasis recognized that medical skill is a necessary part of the equation, but not the only part. Not all wounds can be repaired by human ingenuity and healing is also a gift of the Spirit.

This reminder is urgently needed today, a time when the squeeze on government resources devoted to health care has provoked public debates over how and whether to ration certain forms of care. Particularly, as our society ages, our decisions on distribution of health services increasingly become life-and-death matters. There is a growing temptation to accept cold calculations of the cost of medical care in determining how to deal with the elderly and those dying of old age.

Pope Benedict XVI waded into these turbulent waters in mid-November with his comments to a conference in Rome hosted by the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care. Real health care, he said, is more than technical fixes.

Benedict reminded the conference that palliative care is necessary, even if it cannot “cure” illness or dying. “And alongside the indispensable clinical treatment, sick people have need of understanding, comfort and of constant encouragement and accompaniment.”

“Human life is a gift from God which we are all called to protect at all times,” the Holy Father said. “What is needed is a generalized commitment so that human life may be respected, not only in Catholic hospitals but in all places that care for the sick.”

All of us have a duty in providing such care. Doctors, nurses and the army of health specialists are just as important to “caring” for their human touch as for their expertise. And the rest of us — the relatives and friends of the sick and dying — are important too.

The sick, says the Pope, “should be surrounded by brothers and sisters in the faith who are ready to listen to them and share their feelings. This, in fact, is the true aim of the ‛pastoral’ care of elderly people, especially when they are ill, and even more so when they are seriously ill.”

At a public policy level, we need to ensure that best practices shape our distribution of health resources. Yet we must never lose sight of the fact that at its heart, our medical system is about “taking care” of our children, our brothers and sisters, our friends and relations, our mothers and fathers — to the natural end of their days.

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