Federal and provincial governments need to guarantee access to palliative care in legislation, the Canadian Cancer Society said Tuesday as it released a report on the state of care across the country.
In its findings, the society said critically ill patients are falling through the cracks of the health care system and improvements are needed to address the patchwork of service that exists.
In the absence of national standards, individual jurisdictions are left to develop their own policies, programs and guidelines that result in inconsistent and inadequate palliative care, the report said.
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Canada must reform its approach to palliative care, according to the society's public issues director Gabriel Miller.
"We haven't, as a country, guaranteed this as part of what Canadians have a right to expect from their health care system," he said.
"We haven't developed the standards or the data collection we need to make sure it is being provided properly and we haven't made the targeted investments to make sure that people can get the right kind of care where they need it.
"It is absolutely now that governments have to take action to fix that."
Fixing palliative care must be at the top of the to-do list for the federal and provincial governments as work begins on a new health accord, Miller noted.
A health ministers meeting is scheduled for later this month in Vancouver.
"For the first time in a decade, federal and provincial governments are going to sit down and hammer out a new vision for health care in this country," he said.
"If that vision doesn't fix what is wrong with palliative care, it will be a failure. This is a critical test for a transformative health care agenda — whether it is going to do a better job and a more sustainable job of caring for the sickest and most vulnerable citizens and providing them better care especially outside of hospitals."
In an interview with The Canadian Press last month, Health Minister Jane Philpott acknowledged palliative care is inadequate for many patients.
"There is some evidence that only 15 per cent of Canadians have access to high-quality palliative care when they need it," said Philpott, who spent 30 years working as a doctor in Canada and abroad before becoming a politician.
"That's unacceptable and we are committed to doing better."
The health care system needs to be reformed to reflect the demand for care as close to home as possible, Philpott added.
"I think where we are really going to see movement in terms of that system transformation is through my discussions with my provincial and territorial counterparts to make sure that we look at best practices and look at the best models that have been put in place across the country."
During the election campaign, the Liberals promised to spend $3 billion over the next four years to improve access to home care, including supports for family care and palliative care and to make the existing compassionate care benefit more flexible.
The issue of palliative care was flagged last month in a 134-page report provided to Philpott and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould by a panel commissioned following last winter's high court ruling on doctor-assisted death.
The Supreme Court of Canada is considering whether to grant the federal government six additional months to respond to its landmark ruling that recognized the right of consenting adults enduring intolerable physical or mental suffering to end their lives with a doctor's help.