Rochester's four area hospices have joined forces to host a free educational workshop aimed at educating the public on a taboo topic.

Seasons Hospice, St. Croix Hospice, Heartland Hospiceand Mayo Clinic Hospicehave spent the last six weeks coordinating plans for a free one-day conference to be held at Bethel Lutheran Church. It's the first time the four groups, who are generally competitors, have worked together to organize such a summit.

It's been scheduled for Friday, so it's part of National Hospice and Palliative Care Month.

"We're partners in hospice care," said St. Croix's Christi Young, who first raised the idea for such a partnership. "I don't like to think of us as competitors. We play nice in the sandbox.

"It's nice that we can work together and do this. It really comes down to what's best for our clients."

Representatives from the four facilities have been holding weekly meetings since September to brainstorm and collaborate for the unusual conference. Each company is currently serving about 70 clients apiece, but that number remains far smaller than each facility would like.

Only about 45 percent of eligible clients utilize hospice careacross the country. The Rochester facilities agree that education remains a huge hurdle.

Hospice care is fully covered by Medicare and most health care providers. The service was created in 1973 in the U.S. to serve cancer patients, but was expanded in 1982 to include care for various other ailments, including Alzheimer's disease. Still, many people still think of hospice care as being just for cancer patients, according to Susan Siegle of Heartland Hospice.

Another big issue is that most people wait too long to sign up for hospice care, according to Brian Olson of St. Croix Hospice. The national average for hospice care is under seven days, but people are actually eligible for at least six months of hospice care. Studies have shown that patients live an average of 29 days longer, and more comfortably, if they're early enrollees, according to Mary Hostetler of Seasons Hospice.

"That's the most important thing," Hostetler said. "People think they're giving up and that's simply not the case."

"It's because there's a misconception (of hospice care)," Olson added. "A lot of times, it's the elephant in the room."

Local providers tout the options and flexibility of hospice care, noting that health care professionals will provide service "wherever patients call home" and includes a variety of tasks, including special options for veterans.

"Sometimes vets carry heavy things with them and they're only willing to share with other vets," said Amy Stelpflug of Mayo Clinic Hospice.

Additionally, the facilities offer 13 months of bereavement benefits to grieving families after patients pass away. This covers visits and counseling on important dates such as birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.

The Nov. 20 education seminar will cover a variety of topics between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Lores Vlaminck, the summit's keynote speaker, is slated to tackle "discussions and decisions when faced with a serious illness" starting at 12:30 p.m.

Officials are hoping for a turnout of about 100 people.