The greatest honour of her career: how Dr. Karen Burch works to bring hope, health and wellness to palliative care patients

Dr. Karen Burch is a palliative care physician with Nova Scotia Health’s Annapolis Valley palliative care team.
Dr. Karen Burch is a palliative care physician with Nova Scotia Health’s Annapolis Valley palliative care team.

Even before Doctor Karen Burch started studying medicine 19 years ago, she was drawn to palliative care. 

It was the sense of privilege she felt while being with someone who was seriously ill or near the end of their life that ultimately led her to devote her career to helping individuals and their families during such a pivotal time.

“I’m fortunate that early in my medical education I had wonderful mentors in palliative care,” said Dr. Burch.

Now a palliative care physician with Nova Scotia Health’s Annapolis Valley palliative care team, Dr. Burch describes her role as both collaborative and supportive in nature. 

Together with other health care providers, Dr. Burch provides consultative support to patients, their families, and their care teams. This care can be in the home, in hospital settings or other clinical settings such as long term care.

“We do our best to work closely with our partners in other parts of the health care system,” said Dr. Burch.  

“At times, the system can lend itself to a certain degree of fragmentation in care. Individuals who access palliative care services often have multiple providers and specialists involved. We try to help them navigate and bridge these moving parts and sometimes, can help access other supports they may not have been aware of. This can be helpful if folks are feeling alone or scared.”

Working alongside health professionals in other disciplines provides a special opportunity essential to providing holistic care. 

Whether it’s nursing, social work, pharmacy, a visiting volunteer, spiritual care, mental health, primary care or another domain, Dr. Burch explained each can play an important role in the health and wellness of the patient and their loved ones.

“In doing so we’re able to identify needs, help manage symptoms, and address communication and care planning challenges,” said Dr. Burch.

“We’re all working towards the same goal – and that’s providing the best possible care for the whole person. We want to enable each person to live as fully as possible until the end of their life, and when the time comes, to have a ‘good death’ on their terms. Everyone deserves that kind of care.”

In the past, palliative care was viewed exclusively as care provided very near death when no other treatment options remained. 

For Dr. Burch, this is a stigma she is working to change amongst not just individuals and families who may benefit from a palliative approach to care, but also the wider population and health care culture.

“For people with serious, life-limiting illness, the earlier these principles of whole-person care are integrated, the more the patient and their family benefit,” explained Dr. Burch. 

“As we help patients, families and health care providers understand this, it will raise the bar of care delivered across the board. Though a small percentage of us will die suddenly or after a brief illness, most of us will succumb to a health condition with a longer trajectory over time, like cancer or chronic organ disease. There is a lot of room to integrate this kind of approach to care.”

Much of this kind of care can be delivered effectively through primary care in collaboration with other disciplines. 

Input from a palliative care specialist team can be helpful when there are particular challenges in symptom management, communication or care planning.

Though each experience presents unique challenges and complexities, Dr. Burch shared that standing alongside palliative care patients and their families has been one of the greatest honours of her career.

“It’s a sacred time for those going through it and those involved, and I truly feel privileged to do this work.  It can be an opportunity to bring hope to a situation where someone may feel like there is none.”