Consider This Challenging But Very Rewarding Specialty - Palliative Care Nursing

May 22, 2015

A student taking a patient's blood pressure in a Tanzanian hospital. Most nursing specialties focus on how to cure or prevent illnesses and keep patients alive and healthy. In that sense – palliative care nursing is different. The focus is on relieving symptoms, not in curing the disease. Palliative care nurses work with people who have been diagnosed with life limiting illnesses. Nurses who choose to pursue this path do not work to cure illnesses. Instead they are trained to help patients and their families cope during this very challenging time by providing much-needed emotional support and counselling and helping individuals make the most of the time they have left.

Patients who know they are dying of an incurable illness often struggle to find the hope and strength to enjoy their last moments. Palliative care nurses play a huge role in ensuring that such patients receive the best possible treatments and support to alleviate their pain and symptoms. This is not a job for the faint hearted. The nature of the job can be very physically and emotionally demanding. One of the most important requirements of this specialty is the ability to deal with tragedy and loss on a regular basis.

Medical illnesses that you would commonly encounter as a palliative care nurse include advanced heart disease, cancer, dementia and other neurological disorders. You would also encounter patients suffering from advanced respiratory, liver and kidney diseases or serious injuries on a regular basis.

Key responsibilities of a palliative care nurse include:

  • Administering medication for relief from pain and other distressing symptoms
  • Integrating the medical aspects of patient care with psychological and spiritual aspects of patient care
  • Offering a support system to help patients live as actively as possible until they die
  • Offering support, counselling and practical advice to help loved ones cope during the patient’s illness and with their bereavement 

Palliative care can be provided in a variety of settings including hospitals and hospices and patients’ homes. 

Pathway To Becoming A Palliative Care Nurse 

There are several different pathways that can lead to palliative care nursing. You will have to first complete a 4-year bachelor’s degree programme in nursing. Most new graduates intern for at least one year in an intensive care or emergency room setting to gain practical experience and prepare for their eventual careers in palliative care.

Another route is to seek out employment in palliative care agencies such as in-patient hospices or community palliative care. These services generally provide plenty of specific education and skill development opportunities.

A pre-nursing student with her mentor There are also several short courses and post-graduate courses available that focus on palliative care nursing. Enrolling in such a course after some experience in nursing can help you towards your ultimate goal.

Whichever pathway you choose, you will be required to pass extensive written examinations before you can practice as a certified palliative care nurse.

Experienced palliative care nurses often go on to advocate public awareness, conduct research about terminal illnesses and advanced care practices or become nurse educators at hospitals and colleges. Some even help develop new policies regarding patient care.