When answers are everything

Award-winning website supports people with life-limiting illnesses and their families

When answers are everything
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About the Virtual Hospice

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, November / December 2010

The scenario is not uncommon.

A woman is told her husband has been diagnosed with advanced cancer. She is also the primary caregiver for her 85-year-old mother, who is showing signs of dementia.

Despite having supportive family close by, she is feeling overwhelmed and alone.

She has many questions, of course, but they don't always have easy answers.

What can she expect as his cancer progresses, and how can she provide comfort to him? What should she tell her grandchildren about their "Grandpa's" illness? What services are available to help with her mother's care as her needs increase? How can she cope?

Fortunately, the answers to these and other questions are now just a click away. The Canadian Virtual Hospice at is an award-winning, made-in-Winnipeg website designed to help people through life's most difficult times.

In addition to providing facts about physical symptoms associated with life-limiting illnesses, it also offers information about the emotional and spiritual issues that arise as people enter the last phase of life.

Since coming online in 2004, Canadian Virtual Hospice has provided trusted information and support to hundreds of thousands of Canadians and people from over 150 other countries. It has been ranked as one of the best health websites in Canada by the Canadian Health Libraries Association and in June it was honoured internationally with a silver award at the U.S.-based Health and Sciences Communication Association Media Festival.

The idea to create the website came about when palliative care leaders from across the country met to discuss how to help address the gaps in palliative care information and services across Canada. The fully bilingual site went online in 2004, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Harvey Max Chochinov, Chair of Virtual Hospice.

"The goal was straight forward," says Chochinov, "to provide a safe place for Canadians to access trusted information and support at the most difficult time of their lives."

Chochinov is an internationally renowned palliative care researcher who holds the only Canada Research Chair in Palliative Care. He established the Manitoba Palliative Care Research Unit at CancerCare Manitoba and is also a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Manitoba.

"We wanted to provide Canadians with access to palliative care experts regardless of where they live - a place where they can ask questions and read articles about managing symptoms and other matters that arise when facing a life-limiting or chronic illness or when caring for the elderly."

The site has evolved to provide information to support health-care providers caring for people in the last phase of their lives.

"Caring for people at end of life can be complex. We wanted to create a place where health-care providers could access tools to assist them in providing quality care for patients and families, and where researchers and clinicians could share their latest findings and best practices with others."

Today, receives visits from 1,000 people a day, including patients, family members and friends, health-care providers, educators and researchers.

A unique feature of the website is its Ask a Professional section which enables Canadians to submit questions confidentially to a team of experts with more than 130 years of combined experience in palliative and end-of-life care. The team is led by Dr. Mike Harlos, Medical Director of the Winnipeg Health Region's Palliative Care program, and includes specially trained physicians, nurses, a social worker and a spiritual care adviser.

To ask a question, all Canadians have to do is provide an e-mail address so they can access the answer and a postal code so the team can identify local services. To date, over 1,200 questions have been answered on a spectrum of concerns. Forty per cent of questions are from health-care providers seeking assistance on difficult or complex cases.

"We have an incredibly talented and dedicated team that collaborate on answers to ensure people have the information they need to make decisions, to understand what to expect and help provide some peace of mind at a very uncertain and difficult time," says Chochinov.

The website has developed an international reputation as demonstrated by its recent award, growth of international visitors and the fact that the Harvard Medical School is a follower of Virtual Hospice's Twitter page.

But while international recognition is nice, Chochinov says it is the feedback from visitors that resonates most with the team.

"What is most gratifying is that people who are looking for answers to some of life's most difficult questions are turning to the Canadian Virtual Hospice, and they are telling us that we have made a difference. That is the power of the Virtual Hospice."


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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