Introduction: This article draws on selected palliative care providers’ views and experiences to reflect on the potential benefits and possible challenges of involving traditional healers in palliative care in rural areas of South Africa. There is increasing consensus that palliative care should be offered by a range of professional and non-professional healthcare givers. Including non-professionals such as traditional healers in a palliative care team may strengthen care provisioning as they have intimate knowledge of patients’ local culture and spiritual beliefs.
Methods: Employing the qualitative method of photo-elicitation, one-on-one discussions about the photographs taken by participants were conducted. The participants – 4 palliative care nurses and 17 home-based care workers – were purposively selected to provide in-depth information about their experiences as palliative caregivers in rural homes.
Results: Healthcare workers’ experiences revealed that the patients they cared for valued traditional rituals connected to illness, dying, death and bereavement. Participants suggested that traditional healers should be included in palliative care training programs as they could offer appropriate psychological, cultural and spiritual care. A challenge identified by participants was the potential of traditional healers to foster a false sense of longevity in patients facing death.
Discussion: The importance of recognising the value of traditional practices in palliative care should not be underrated in rural South Africa. Traditional healers could enhance palliative care services as they have deep, insider knowledge of patients’ spiritual needs and awareness of cultural practices relating to illness, death, dying and bereavement. Incorporating traditional healers into healthcare services where there are differences in the worldviews of healthcare providers and patients, and a sensitivity to mediate cultural differences between caregivers and patients, could have the benefit of providing appropriate care in rural spaces.
Conclusions: Considering the influences of cultural and spiritual beliefs on the wellbeing of patients living in rural areas, the inclusion of traditional healers in a palliative care team is a sensible move. It is, nevertheless, important to note that unanticipated challenges may arise with respect to power differentials within the palliative care team and to beliefs that contradict medical prognosis.
Key words: palliative care, qualitative research, South Africa, traditional healer.