In Spain, less than 50% of people who could receive end-of-life care have access to it. Research shows that giving health professionals, patients and families a voice in the media can help integrate these therapies into health care. However, it is politicians who are most present in media coverage.
The written media can improve citizens' understanding of palliative care and consequently contribute to its development in Spain. This is one of the main conclusions of the study led by the ATLANTES Programme of the University of Navarre and published in Plos One.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), palliative care aims to improve the quality of life of those patients (and their families) who face the problems of a life-threatening disease.
Attention is paid not only to end-of-life physical issues, but also to psychological, social and spiritual matters. In Spain, less than 50% of people who could benefit from these therapies have access to them, despite the fact that strategies exist to integrate them into our health systems.
In order to understand how the leading Spanish newspapers portray palliative care and contribute to its social representation, the team of researchers has analyzed 262 articles published between 2009 and 2014 by El País, El Mundo, ABC and La Vanguardia.
This project has established that palliative care is substantially present in the Spanish press, although the most common coverage focuses on socio-political debates - for example, in the wake of new laws related to the end of life or requests for euthanasia - rather than on the benefits for patients or their developmental situation.
As for the social actors involved in news stories in which palliative care is mentioned, the team has identified the following, in order of presence: politicians, health professionals, civil society organizations, individuals and editorial teams.
With regard to politicians, the instrumental use they make of palliative care to frame political strategies in line with their respective parties' ideology, proposals and actions is obvious.
"Moreover, the news items in which this group appears often deal with some debate that has captured the attention of the media at a particular time," explains the main author of the study, José Miguel Carrasco.
What about health professionals?
One also finds, to a lesser extent, the viewpoints of palliative care practitioners, who appear as key sources of objective information on technical issues, particularly in controversial cases and in debates on end-of-life legislation.
"Their messages tend to be didactic and aimed at promoting such care," adds Carrasco, a former ATLANTES researcher and founding member of Aplica Coop, the social research cooperative on health and well-being.
In relation to content that includes civil society groups, there are speeches and messages related to pro-life organizations, euthanasia associations, patient groups and the Catholic Church. They all defend their respective ideological or moral positions.
"We have found few texts with testimonies of patients or relatives attended to by palliative care services," says Carrasco. "Besides, those identified mainly give stories in which the protagonists tell about how they have benefitted from these services."
The voice of experience
Finally, the study identifies how palliative care is also reflected in opinion columns and editorials, which present the ideological position of the newspaper in question regarding current debates, such as euthanasia.
According to the study, most media coverage associates palliative care with the end of life and aspects related to fear and pain, rather than deal with what they can contribute when it comes to addressing them.
"When the different agents with experience in palliative care - professionals, patients and relatives - talk about them, they give clearer information about the nature of this care and its benefits for patients and caregivers. In this way, they contribute to building a more positive image of this practice," concludes Carlos Centeno, the chief researcher of ATLANTES.
The researchers maintain that giving greater press coverage to the messages of the groups that are close to these cares can be a way to promote their expansion and integration in the health services.
This article follows the same route as another one published in 2017 in the same magazine. This reviewed 627 articles, 57% of them from printed newspapers and the rest from digital media. In the first category, only 2% of articles and news reports were drawn from the health section. Ninety per cent of the texts analyzed contained socio-political messages.
35% of the articles quoted palliative professionals while 32% quoted politicians. Most of the messages analyzed failed to describe professional practice or the benefit for patients. In fact, researchers suggested that the media should devote more space in their coverage to these issues.