May 11, 2021

Provincial initiative with University of Calgary roots promotes end-of-life planning

Government of Alberta project spans health care, law, financial services and other sectors to help Albertans plan for their future
Jessica Simon and Konrad Fassbender
Jessica Simon and Konrad Fassbender.

A new initiative  encourages Albertans to have important conversations about the type of care and quality of life that's important to them and put a plan in place for their end-of-life care.

The Advance Care Planning (ACP) Alberta project, funded by a two-year Alberta Health grant and co-led by the University of Calgary and the Covenant Health Palliative Institute, will equip people across the province to effectively determine, communicate and document key aspects of their personal, health and financial plans that can affect future health-care needs.

“Advance care planning brings peace of mind to Albertans and their families, especially in times of heightened health worries due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Dr. Jessica Simon, MD, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and project adviser.

However, only one-third of Albertans have heard of advance care planning and many people are unsure how to get started.

Advance care planning is a process that enables individuals to make plans about their future health care — providing direction to health-care professionals when a person is not in a position to make or communicate their own health-care choices.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred people to have more conversations about their health-care wishes, Simon says they need to also take the next step — talking with their health-care provider and documenting an advance care plan.

An 'urgent public health concern'

The ACP Alberta project is the latest in a series of provincial initiatives to promote advance care planning. It builds on the work of the Alberta Innovates-funded Advance Care Planning Collaborative Research and Innovation Opportunities (ACP CRIO) initiative, co-led by Simon, which ran from 2013 until 2019, focused on establishing best practices for promoting advance care planning across the health-care system.

ACP CRIO was able to leverage the support provided by partners such as the O’Brien Institute to secure provincial funding and expand the project to tackle an important societal issue, says Simon, a member of the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute at the CSM.

“With our aging population and resulting increase of individuals facing end of life, advance care planning has become an urgent public health concern,” she says.

Just one in five Canadians has a documented plan for their end-of-life wishes, says Dr. Konrad Fassbender, PhD, scientific director of the Covenant Health Palliative Institute. This could be because many people don’t really understand the process of advance care planning, or know how to get started, he says.

We are all familiar with getting our affairs in order when completing a will, but what happens if you are ill and no longer able to speak for yourself? That is why you also need to complete a personal directive, which will appoint someone to make your personal decisions if you are not able.

ACP Alberta is extending advance care planning opportunities beyond health care by partnering with sectors outside health care, including law, banking and financial planning, to provide information and education to the public.

Working with these sectors will provide an opportunity to package advance care planning information and tools together with resources related to personal and financial planning.

“We want to promote advance care planning throughout our lives so that we don't just hear about it when we’re sick, but starting as healthy young adults and throughout all those different life milestones such as buying a home, having children and retiring.”

Fassbender says the goal is to normalize advance care planning and encourage it as an endeavour for all adults, not just those who are facing serious illness.

Find Alberta Health Services resources on advance care planning here.

Jessica Simon is an associate professor in the departments of Oncology, Community Health Sciences and Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine.

Konrad Fassbender is an associate professor in the Division of Palliative Care Medicine at the University of Alberta