The quest for a good death

Dr. Colleen Webber is receiving the Clinical and Applied Health Researcher in Training Award from The Ottawa Hospital for her rigorous and empathetic palliative care research

November 9, 2023

A woman stands in a hospital hallway“Death impacts us all at some point. I’m interested in what a good death looks like, particularly for vulnerable populations,” says Dr. Colleen Webber, winner of The Ottawa Hospital's Clinical and Applied Health Researcher in Training Award.
Dr. Colleen Webber isn’t afraid to talk about death. As a palliative care researcher, the senior clinical research associate and postdoctoral fellow at The Ottawa Hospital and uOttawa does it every day.

“Death impacts us all at some point. I’m interested in what a good death looks like, particularly for vulnerable populations,” she says. “What health care services do we need for a good death, and are there barriers to accessing them?”

Dr. Webber first became interested in palliative care thanks to a part-time job during her PhD in epidemiology at Queen’s University. She worked as a research assistant on a study looking at palliative care in the home and found it fascinating.

After moving to Ottawa, she followed her new passion to become a palliative care research associate at The Ottawa Hospital.

A natural leader and creative researcher

In just a few years Dr. Webber has already made significant contributions to the field. For example, by studying how palliative care is delivered in hospitals she established new research methods that have since been adopted by researchers across Ontario.

As a member of a national palliative care research network, Dr. Webber is leading a project to standardize palliative care data across Canada. She also helped lead a symposium aimed at building consensus on how researchers measure the delivery and quality of palliative care.

At The Ottawa Hospital, Dr. Webber is leading two multi-year research projects. The first looks at the impact of social isolation on long-term care residents during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, her team has found long-term care residents in Ontario did not suffer steeper cognitive declines due to COVID-19-related isolation, countering a fear widely held early in the pandemic. They are also looking at residents’ functional abilities and mood during this time.

The second project is about palliative care delivery for people with schizophrenia, and whether it differs from the care received by people without schizophrenia. Very little is known about this topic.

Using health administrative data from Manitoba and Ontario, Dr. Webber’s team will look at whether people with schizophrenia are getting palliative care, where they are getting it and how close to death they are getting it. Next, they’ll ask if palliative care and other health services could be better structured to meet the needs of this population.

Engaging people with lived experience

To make sure her research is relevant, Dr. Webber has partnered with national and provincial organizations that support individuals with schizophrenia, and assembled an advisory council including people living with schizophrenia and their family members.

“As researchers we can look at the evidence and look at the gaps, but it’s people with lived experience who can tell us what’s important to them, and what questions we should be asking. I always come out of those meetings very invigorated to do the work. It’s a reminder that what we’re doing could make a difference.”

The research is still in its early stages, but the team has found that people with schizophrenia are more likely to be in living in long-term care before they die. This raises questions like: Are long-term care homes the best locations for these people to be living? Are they living there because they don’t have the resources to stay in the community? Are the staff trained on aging with schizophrenia?

“There's not a lot of research on aging with schizophrenia. I think it's something that we will be exploring more even beyond end-of-life,” says Dr. Webber.

She’s brought together experts from many different areas, including palliative care, psychiatry, geriatrics, internal medicine, epidemiologists and data scientists. Dr. Webber feels this multidisciplinary approach is needed to create change.

“There’s an increasing need for palliative care across care settings. It’s not just a specialist approach – it needs to be integrated into all aspects of care. By engaging lots of different experts in palliative care research we hope to help make that happen.”

Check out this Q&A to learn more about Dr. Webber and what inspires her.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa and supported by The Ottawa Hospital Foundation.