Palliative care as a public health issue: understanding disparities in access to palliative care for the homeless population living in Toronto, based on a policy analysis

B. Henry, N. Dosani, L. Huynh, N. Amirault


Even in a developed country such as Canada, there are disparities in just access to adequate health care—and, more specifically, palliative care. That inequality is most notable in an underserved group such as the homeless population. Even the word “homeless” has become both a negative descriptor and a stereotype in our society. We posit that the provision of hospice palliative care is structured on several problematic assumptions: an expectation that patients will have an informal support network (family and friends), a stable and secure residence, a predictive terminal illness trajectory, and reasonable access to health care. Those assumptions create structural inequality within the system.

Homeless individuals have considerable experience with death and dying, and qualitative research has shown them to hold the expectation that their death will be both sudden and violent. Here, we look at the current data concerning known disparities in access to good palliative care services experienced by the homeless population, based on a stakeholder analysis of the available literature. That information, coupled with the use of a public health ethics decision-making tool, such as the Good Decision Making in Real Time framework, is used to explore the common ethics challenges that can arise in public health interventions aimed at the provision of end-of-life care to homeless adults. A broad exploration of the system that underlies our care is critical to the proper and appropriate provision of care for homeless individuals.


Homelessness; end of life; palliative care; health care disparities

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ISSN: 1198-0052 (Print) ISSN: 1718-7729 (Online)