How Funeral Professionals Can Build Relationships with Hospices (Part 1)

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

The late Stephen Covey made this concept #5 on his list of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” but long before that, St. Francis of Assisi made it part of his prayer for divine guidance. Perhaps nowhere are these words more relevant than in the efforts to form effective relationships between funeral service and hospice care professionals. There are certainly existing areas of mutual understanding between the two professions. End-of-life and death care professions tend to be those where only the most passionate individuals survive. It’s rare to meet a funeral or hospice professional who views the job as just another way to pay the bills. We are passionate about our work!

Passion is a wonderful thing, driving us to do more and better. The trouble is it can lead to a bad case of tunnel vision. The kind of tunnel vision that makes us a little blind to the wants and needs of the very people we hope to serve.  

In my experience, the passion which hospice and funeral service professionals bring to their work can lead both groups of professionals to fall victim. It’s particularly true when it comes to dealing with those professionals who serve as the “gatekeepers” for our potential clients. Understanding and responding to our potential customers is hard enough, now we have to learn to deal with a middleman!

In the hospice world, traditional healthcare providers play the role of gatekeeper. Patients and families are typically referred to hospice providers by physicians, long-term care professionals, hospital social workers and a variety of other medical personnel. These gatekeepers evaluate patient and family circumstances, needs and wishes and make recommendations for further care designed to help meet those needs. Hospices have experienced a steep learning curve in trying to understand how to work with gatekeepers to better serve patients and families. The rapid growth in the number of people using hospice care is evidence of hospice’s successful effort to grow their understanding of this important audience.

Hospice as the gatekeeper

Historically, funeral professionals haven’t significantly contended with other professionals as gatekeepers. The funeral director typically works with the family to provide a service and create a bond that might last generations. Traditional healthcare providers were typically uncomfortable talking about death and dying, so little discussion was had with patients and families ahead of the actual death. With the growing number of people using hospice care, much has changed.

Today nearly 50% of American deaths take place under the care of hospice. With an average length of stay of nearly 70 days, patients and families have significant contact with hospice care providers and volunteers. Because most care is provided in the home or place of residence, patients, families and caregivers share many experiences and develop deep bonds. The care process involves conversations about death and dying in light of the patient and family’s goals, wishes and desires. It’s not unusual for detailed conversations about funeral service or memorial events to occur between patient, family and caregiver.

Suddenly, the hospice care professional looks a lot like the gatekeeper for a significant number of families in need of funeral service. The situations may vary, but times are changing. More and more often, I hear that funeral directors are receiving calls from hospice social workers inquiring on behalf of the families.

A few words of caution: In spite of the frustrations we might feel during this time of change, be careful not to assign negative connotations to the term “gatekeeper.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the next installment of this blog series, I’ll explain how taking time to understand the hospice gatekeepers’ needs and motivations can help you form long-term partnerships for the benefit of the families you serve.

This post was adapted from the article “How Hospice is Changing Funeral Service,” which originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of The Director.

Kim Medici Shelquist is the Senior VP – Planning & Development for Homesteaders Life Company. In her previous position as a hospice professional, she encouraged people to discuss their wishes to ensure they had the best possible end-of-life experiences that reflected their values. Click here to learn more about the leadership team at Homesteaders.

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