Vatican City conference organized by WISH and the Pontifical Academy for Life

Global health leaders and communities must foster a “culture of care” rather than a “community of neglect” when it comes to the treatment of the elderly, and palliative care has to be at the forefront in relieving the suffering of older members of society during their final days. The elderly can no longer be “pushed to the margins of society.”

That was the message delivered by Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL). The archbishop was speaking on the opening day of the ‘Religion and Medical Ethics: Palliative Care and the Mental Health of the Elderly’, symposium held recently in Vatican City.

Organized jointly by the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), an initiative of Qatar Foundation, and PAL, the Rome symposium aimed to tackle the treatment of patients facing life-threatening illness and death, with a focus on inter-faith dialogue and addressing the challenges and barriers facing palliative care across the globe.

The symposium was attended by hundreds of medical practitioners and media from around the world. In his address to the gathering, Archbishop Paglia stressed that the world was in urgent need for a “palliative care movement.” He added, “Together with all religions, we have to improve knowledge in the application of palliative care.

“There is a great deal of ignorance about palliative care, and we run the risk of abandonment. We do not want a culture of abandonment; we want a culture of accompaniment and a culture of love. In my opinion, all people of all religions are in agreement with this.”

Archbishop Paglia praised WISH for co-organizing the symposium, saying the issue of palliative care has never been more pressing than it is at present. “The themes reflected in this congress — palliative care and mental health in old age — are two important areas, not only for healthcare, but also for the future of our societies,” he said in his opening speech.

“All too often, terminally-ill patients and the elderly, especially those affected by mental illness, are pushed to the margins of the society and it is believed they have nothing more to offer, or that they are a burden. The Pontifical Academy for Life is committed to promoting a culture of palliative care, not only within the community of believers but everywhere in the world.”

Archbishop Paglia said the Vatican City symposium has followed a productive previous meeting in Doha, held to reflect on themes related to euthanasia, assisted suicide, and the promotion of palliative care, in “the two great traditions; the Islamic tradition and the Christian tradition.” Emphasizing that inter-faith and inter-religious discussions are critical to ensuring the compassion and dignity of every person in the final stages of life, he said, “I believe you have to have strong [inter-faith] friendships, because that allows us to better understand not only our traditions, but also our future together.

“Palliative care is a human right and this awareness is gradually spreading, but the true human right is the right to be recognized and accepted as a member of society, as part of the one and only human family. We must rediscover this.”

According to Archbishop Paglia, palliative care not only provides support from a medical standpoint, but also from a human and cultural perspective. “The goal of healing is fundamental in today’s medicine,” he explained. “This means that when you can no longer heal, medicine believes it has failed.

“However, medicine can always treat even when it cannot heal. This is one of the pillars we must highlight.” And he said the medical community must recognize that stopping a patient’s treatment when it can no longer help does not equate to abandonment. “It is not true that there is nothing more to do, because presence and accompaniment are also important,” he said. “Holding a patient’s hand and offering to talk is important. We must always help to weaken suffering by offering love.

“It is fundamental to rediscover the culture of accompaniment till the time of death. That is why a correct practice of palliative care and pain therapy can also help governments spend less and invent new processes to develop new medical care.

Pediatric palliative care must also be more focused because it is a dimension which requires the utmost commitment. And then there is the issue of the mental health of the elderly — living longer also involves an increase of serious diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“Weakness is often seen as a form of guilt. We must change this perspective, and promote acts of solidarity and love in times of weakness. Palliative care as a tool is very effective not only in medical terms, but also in terms of global humanism.”

In her welcome remarks to the audience, the CEO of WISH, Sultana Afdhal, pointed out that many Muslim-majority countries lack codified palliative care laws, hospital guidelines or national policies. This put healthcare professionals in a vulnerable position, where they may be subject to malpractice and liability charges.

She added that the controversy surrounding palliative care was rooted in the accepted view that it was the duty of healthcare personnel to help people live,  rather than help people die.  And  furthermore,  that no human has the right to end another’s life. But what happens when death was inevitable,  and the continuance of life equates to little more than the prolonging of suffering?

In 2018, WISH published a report on Islamic ethics and palliative care  that  tackled  some  of  these  issues. The report was discussed at length at the biennial WISH global summit held last November in Doha, an event that attracted more than 2,000 healthcare leaders from around the world.

The WISH report recommended that the establishment of policies relating to end-of-life care should be prioritized.  In order for this to happen, raising public awareness was a must.

Early this year, WISH  signed a declaration on palliative care with the Pontifical Academy for Life,  a declaration that in October was used as the basis for a positioning paper around palliative care, which was signed by a large group of Abrahamic faith leaders and presented by Archbishop Paglia to His Holiness the Pope.

Since WISH was launched in 2012,  its mission has been to build a healthier world through global collaboration. It is therefore a natural progression for WISH to be here in Vatican City to actively promote dialogue between people of faith and medical experts around issues that have such a profound effect on individuals, their families, their communities, and healthcare workers.

WISH sees itself as providing a solid platform that enables the meeting-up of global experts and stakeholders to discuss key healthcare issues. Qatar  Foundation, the Doha-based non-profit parent organization, has nearly 25 years of experience working in education, science and community development —  both in Qatar and around the world.

Sultan Afdal added that WISH wanted to initiate conversations that had genuine potential to benefit humanity as a whole, regardless of individual beliefs. She pointed out that interfaith and interdisciplinary medical dialogue on palliative care and the mental health of older members in the community was essential in helping to establish a common ground, to find more effective ways to bridge differences in faith-based ethical approaches.

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