A new campaign in Howard County is bringing together faith groups, health care providers and other community organizations to change the way people talk about and plan for the health care they want to receive in the future. The Speak(easy) Howard campaign, led by The Horizon Foundation, is designed to encourage residents to take two critical first steps in planning for end-of-life care: have a conversation about health care wishes with loved ones and identify a health care agent who can communicate these wishes when the need arises.

“It should be easy to talk about the life we want to live until the very end, and to have that conversation before it’s too late,” said Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of The Horizon Foundation. “We recognize that planning for end-of-life care is an important, but often overlooked issue. Our hope with Speak(easy) Howard is that all people in Howard County have their voices heard and respected so that their health care wishes can be carried out with clarity and peace.”

Ninety percent of Americans say that talking with their loved ones about end-of-life care is important, but fewer than 30% have actually had those conversations, according to a survey by The Conversation Project, which works nationally to help people talk about their end-of-life care wishes and is a Speak(easy) Howard partner.

When these conversations haven’t happened, families often feel an immense burden, said Leslie Rogers, director of social work at Howard County General Hospital.

“These situations are so overwhelming as it is, and this is often magnified when families have not had discussions about their wishes prior to getting sick,” she said. “It is difficult to watch families grappling with questions such as, ‘Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing enough? Are we doing too much?’ There is rarely a sense of peace, and families are often left with a complicated grief reaction if they are not prepared.”

Have a Conversation

In June, The Horizon Foundation kicked off the campaign with participating organizations and partners that include Howard County General Hospital, Gilchrist Services, Lorien Health Systems, Columbia Medical Practice, Chase Brexton, St. John Baptist Church, Bridgeway Community Church and the Columbia Jewish Congregation, among many others. Over the next year, these groups will participate in a community learning collaborative committed to building capacity in their organizations to help residents have these conversations before unexpected illnesses or accidents happen.

“This is an important initiative to get people talking about the medical care they would like to receive at any point in a serious illness,” said Dr. W. Anthony Riley, chief medical officer of Gilchrist Services. “My hope is that more people will have these conversations earlier so that when a serious illness worsens or if the unexpected tragically happens, their doctors and their families will know how to respect their values and preferences.”

After the learning collaborative ends in 2017, Speak(easy) Howard will expand the campaign to encourage all individuals in Howard County to have a conversation with loved ones about their care wishes and to designate a health care agent, a trusted person who will make health care decisions if they are unable to communicate for themselves.

Speaking Easy in Howard County

And this will soon be significantly easier to do thanks to a new state law passed in the spring at the urging of The Horizon Foundation and other partners. The law allows people to document their agent and care decisions online without cumbersome additional steps — and allows doctors to more easily access those documents in times of need.

An electronic registry for Howard County residents is currently in development as a part of the Speak(easy) Howard campaign.

On Sept. 13, The Horizon Foundation will host a Speak(easy) Howard public community discussion with The Conversation Project to share information about the importance of end-of-life care planning and discuss what the organizations in the learning collaborative will be doing over the next year to get everyone in the county ready to have these important conversations.

For more information about Speak(easy) Howard, contact The Horizon Foundation at 443-766-1229 or [email protected].