Palliative care was created in Montreal. The MUHC Foundation is helping build on this legacy to change lives

By Dr. Justin Sanders

There are few events that upend the lives of individuals and their loved ones as much as the diagnosis of a serious illness. Whether an advanced cancer, heart failure or chronic lung disease, such illnesses raise the spectre of loss in ways that compound physical suffering. At the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), we strive to provide the best possible care for people affected by serious illness by ensuring access to high quality palliative care across the trajectory of care. In partnership with the MUHC Foundation, we are launching an important campaign to innovate and improve palliative care for our patients.

The history of palliative care in Canada and around the world is synonymous with the MUHC. Adapting principles from the early hospice movement in the United Kingdom, McGill surgical oncologist Balfour Mount coined the term palliative care and founded the first hospital-based unit of its kind at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal in 1975. In its early years, palliative care focused entirely on care of individuals at or near the end of life, and indeed this is an association still held by many health care professionals and patients.

Palliative care is now recognized globally as a critical component of providing the best possible care to people of any age and at any stage of serious illness. Its interdisciplinary practice brings the expertise of physicians, nurses, social workers, and others to address the multiple forms of suffering—physical, psychological, spiritual, and social—experienced by those facing serious illness. A whole person approach to care ensures the highest possible quality of life and well-being and can even foster an experience of growth for the patient.

Part of our work is helping people and society realize that this is an important time in people’s lives. It’s a time of facing difficult medical realities, but also one to focus intensely on the goals and people that matter most to them. We should be focusing on how to make sure every lived moment is as rich as possible and reflects peoples’ values and goals. Dr. Mount understood and wrote about the importance of supporting relationships— between clinicians and patients, between patients and those close to them—as the factor in achieving this goal.

Today, the Division of Palliative Care at the MUHC is proud to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Mount. With the help of the MUHC Foundation, we envision an opportunity to build on the MUHC’s historic contributions to the field by advancing our understanding of how best to care for those affected by serious illness. We will do this through two new initiatives, the Centre for Relationships in Serious Illness (CERES) and the Interprofessional McGill Program in Advanced Communication Skills (IMPACS).

The Centre for Relationships in Serious Illness (CERES)

Named after the Greek goddess of agriculture and maternal love, CERES will study the factors that support and strengthen relationships in serious illness. The centre will use its findings to create medical, educational and health system-wide changes that will give patients and their caregivers the best possible quality of life. Our work will also support the clinicians who care for them.

We believe that the discovery and innovation that emerges from CERES will transform health care for people affected by serious illness. As our population ages and the incidence of serious illness rises, these insights and interventions will become increasingly important. Relationships are the heart of human experience. Medical care that recognizes their value and endeavors to nurture them presents an unrealized opportunity.

The Interprofessional McGill Program in Advanced Communication Skills (IMPACS)

Communication is a key driver of health care quality and patient experience. It is particularly important to people affected by serious illness, who face uncertainty, anxiety, and difficult decisions. Yet it receives little attention in medical and professional training. IMPACS will offer targeted education programs to ensure health care professionals across the MUHC are equipped to communicate effectively in ways that support patients and their families.

Because training alone has limited impact in transforming clinical culture, IMPACS will focus concurrently on ensuring that clinicians can implement new skills effectively rather than adding a new task to their already full plates. Insights gained through the research and innovation in CERES will inform IMPACS training and implementation. Together, they will transform the health care system.

My vision as Director of the Division of Palliative Care at the MUHC is to build upon the foundational work that Dr. Mount began 50 years ago. CERES and IMPACS will bring us to the cutting-edge of palliative research and care, all while honouring the legacy of palliative care in Montreal. You can help us achieve this big dream. The MUHC Foundation is raising $3 million to support the revitalization of the Division of Palliative Care at the MUHC. Together, we can ensure our loved ones experience quality of life at the end of life. To learn more and to donate, visit

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