People facing life-threatening diseases can benefit significantly from palliative care. As defined by the World Health Organization, palliative care helps patients and their families relieve pain and suffering by providing physical, psychosocial, and spiritual support. Helping patients and their families address legal and human rights issues is a crucial part of the holistic approach of palliative care.
People living with AIDS or cancer often face complicated legal questions related to the disposition of property, planning for children, accessing social benefits, and combating discrimination. Caregivers may be particularly vulnerable to human rights abuse. Over the past four years, the Open Society Foundations have supported efforts to link palliative care providers with legal advocates to address these issues in Georgia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ukraine.
In Georgia, this has taken the form of pro bono legal services. Legal services are expensive in Georgia and beyond the means of many palliative care patients, who have undergone long-term, intensive, and costly treatment, exhausting their budget. In October 2008, the Open Society Georgia Foundation held an introduction session on palliative care for legal groups. Kordzadze Law Office, a prestigious Georgian law firm, dedicated one of its lawyers to visit the hospices and remain on call to meet with patients.
A year later, the Open Society Georgia Foundation organized a public launch of the initiative to interest additional law firms. At the launch, a documentary film highlighted the dramatic case of one of the first patients benefiting from the program. The Kordzadze Law Office helped reunite a cancer patient with her husband, who was serving a prison sentence, four days before her death. After the launch, two additional law firms volunteered to provide free legal services to palliative care patients.
Today, three law firms have partnered with the hospices in Georgia to provide patients with comprehensive care that addresses legal needs. Twenty-five patients have had legal issues successfully resolved through this project. The lawyers have further expanded beyond helping individual patients to working with the hospices on their legal matters, such as cooperation agreements with insurance companies.
Georgia has provided us with a successful model of integrated legal and palliative care services. But this collaboration between lawyers and health providers is all too rare, and there is much more work to be done to provide palliative care patients with good, holistic care. Please stay tuned for an update from our projects piloting these integrated services in Africa.