Shadowing a Doctor

March 29, 2016

Palliative medicine is a medical area like no other. Where most medical specialties focus on curing symptoms and helping patients to get better, palliative medicine deals with people who have advanced progressive life-threatening illnesses that have no known cure.

Palliative medicine specialists do not do treat patients. Instead, they help them manage their symptoms. More importantly, they provide patients and their families with much needed psychological, spiritual and social support during this difficult time and help them achieve the best quality of life until death. This is one of the most intense specialties in medicine.

The aim of palliative care

Studies show that palliative care plays a key role in the quality of end-of-life care that patients receive, and it is increasingly recommended that palliative care is provided alongside other treatments. Palliative care aims to:

  • Offer a solid support system to enable patients to live as actively as possible during the limited time they have left
  • Provide relief from painful and distressing symptoms
  • Integrate spiritual and psychological aspects of patient care
  • Help the family cope during their loved one’s illness and offer them support in their grief.

Palliative care is not provided exclusively by professionals or specialists. In most cases this supportive care is provided by the patient’s loved ones and other caregivers. However, palliative medicine specialists still play a key role as they have specific knowledge and expertise in complex end-of-life issues, unresolved symptoms, bereavement aspects and complex psychosocial issue for patients with advanced diseases.

Work settings

As a palliative medicine consultant, you would visit most patients in hospitals and community settings such as hospices. You may also see patients in a specialist outpatient clinic or through a joint clinic with another specialty or you could pay home visits to patients in the community.

The majority of patients you would see, (approximately 70%) have advanced cancer. Other patients could be suffering some other type of advanced illness such as cardiac failure, end-stage renal disease, COPD, advanced HIV or neurological disease.

To ensure that their patient is receiving the best care possible, palliative medicine specialists work closely with clinical nurse specialists (CNSs), allied health professionals, ward nurses and specialist colleagues as part of a multidisciplinary team.

Unique challenges

One of the biggest challenges of palliative care is accepting the fact that your patients have an incurable condition. What’s important in such a scenario is that you need to maintain the right balance between meeting the needs of patients and families, and your needs; in order to avoid emotional burnout in the long term.

Necessary attributes

You should have the following personal attributes if you are considering a career in palliative medicine:

  • Outstanding communication skills, particularly when interacting with patients and their families
  • Compassion, empathy and patience as you listen to what patients are saying
  • The intuition to know what patients are not saying
  • Excellent medical competencies
  • Ability to work well as part of a multidisciplinary team.

It takes a special kind of person to stay objective while knowing all the while that all of the patients in their care are going to die sometime soon. This is an aspect something that requires serious thought if you are planning on specialising in palliative medicine.


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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.