Thelma Bates: enlightened oncologist who pioneered the UK’s first hospital based palliative care service

  1. Penny Warren
  1. Salisbury, UK
  1. warrenpenny788{at}

The small palliative care team that oncologist Thelma Bates set up in 1977 in St Thomas’ Hospital, London, was the first of its kind in the UK. It rapidly grew and became widely imitated.

With high cancer death rates in the 1970s, care of the dying was routine in oncology. Bates never turned a blind eye to terminally ill patients: she was passionate to help them and when she discovered that they were often more comfortable at Cicely Saunders’s hospice in south London, she wanted to know more. She visited St Christopher’s, forging close links with the staff, and eventually became their oncologist, offering palliative radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

Bates wanted to bring hospice style care to hospital patients and was convinced that a roaming multidisciplinary advisory team at St Thomas’ could do this. She took no notice of well meaning colleagues who said palliative care was a “soft option” that would ruin her career.

In 1977 after an observational trip to St Luke’s Hospital in New York, USA, which had a palliative care team embedded in the hospital, Bates persuaded the authorities to set up the St Thomas’ Hospital terminal care support team. She had to tread carefully to avoid implying criticism of existing care, …

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