Above: Associate Professor Dr Meera Agar, director of palliative care at Braeside Hospital.

By Stephen Easton

One of the nation’s leading centres of palliative care research has received $20,000 in prize money that will help it continue finding the best ways to make life more comfortable for people with advanced illnesses.

Last week, the $20,000 Premier’s Award for Innovation in Cancer Clinical Trials went to a team led by Associate Professor Dr Meera Agar, director of palliative care at Braeside Hospital, a specialist palliative care centre run by HammondCare in the Sydney suburb of Fairfield.

The research team from Sydney South West Palliative Care Service won the award for “their commitment to providing access to clinical trials to every patient treated in the Sydney South West Area Health Service“.

The clinical trials are aimed at improving quality of life for people in palliative care by finding the best ways to relieve specific symptoms of cancer, as well as other advanced illnesses like late-stage dementia.

There are currently 15 such trials underway, on topics ranging from improving appetites to relieving uncomfortable and painful symptoms like delirium and bowel obstruction. More than 150 participants have shared their palliative care experiences over the past 12 months.

Dr Agar said the prize money would help to continue the research, which relied mainly on talking to people receiving palliative care, and their families, about how different interventions made them feel.

“I think we need research staff because the participants in these sorts of trials need someone who can be dedicated to their care while they’re participating,” she said. “Especially given that we want to make sure we can visit people in their homes, and those people can be living anywhere between Liverpool and Bowral.”

“We need enough nurses to support the participants – personnel with experience and skills in research and also talking to people with advanced illnesses – that would be the best addition to our unit.”

Dr Agar said that traditionally, most cancer research had focused on treatment rather than the best ways to provide comfort in its late stages, and that the same was true of dementia – most research had looked at possible causes, preventions and cures, rather than care.

“We believe that regardless of whether you have an advanced illness or not, you should be receiving the best evidence-based care, but it needs to be research that’s done sensitively and feasibly for the types of people that are involved.”

“Most of the outcomes of our trials come from patients reporting their symptoms themselves but we also get the caregivers to be involved – they’re equally affected – it’s not just the person with the disease; their family also experiences pain.”

As her team continues to provide palliative care at the same time as studying the best ways to do so, the prize-winning doctor hopes to develop a large body of best-practice knowledge that will be made widely available to improve the quality of palliative care wherever it is provided.

“One [goal] would be having some really robust evidence that certain medicines work really well to manage certain symptoms, and making sure they’re actually available for people who need them. 

“The other aspect is, to improve patient outcomes, we would want to advocate for that model of care to be widely available to other patients around the country.”

WATCH Dr Agar speak about her work at Braeside Hospital in the video below, thanks to the Cancer Institute NSW.

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