Palliative care is medical care that is intended to support and comfort a patient during a serious or life threatening illness, rather than treat his or her medical condition. Nurses specializing in this kind of care may be called upon to help anyone, from an elderly hospice patient to a child with cancer. The main goal of palliative care is to treat the symptoms of the illness and, in cases such as patients who are receiving chemotherapy, the side effects of the treatments being given for the illness. It can include prescribing medications for pain or anxiety, for example, but also includes things like providing companionship, arranging social interactions and discussing end of life issues.
Five things you should know before becoming a palliative care nurse
You became a nurse because of your sincere desire to help people. You want to see them live happy, healthy, productive lives. Becoming a palliative care nurse is one way to meet that goal, but here are some things you should consider before making that career choice.
•Some of your patients will not get better – This is perhaps the hardest fact for a nurse to face. You entered the medical field because you hoped to see your patients recover from their illnesses. Many times, however, patients who require palliative support will not get better. Their illness or disability may be life long, or they may succumb to its effects. The American Cancer Society, for example, puts the five year survival rate of patients diagnosed with cancer at just 68%. Most people lose their battle with this awful disease. In this branch of the nursing profession, you must face the difficult fact that many of your patients will not recover.
•You will need to be more than just a medical care provider – A large part of palliative nursing is providing emotional support and comfort to your patients. According to the National Cancer Institute‘s fact sheet on palliative care in cancer patients, this can include providing emotional support and counseling, organizing family meetings and even recommending therapy if necessary.
•Palliative care is not the same as hospice care – While many elderly hospice patients will require palliative care to address their fears, pain and discomfort as they near the ends of their lives, there are many other kinds of patients who need the same care. Cancer patients, for example, need help and support from the first moment of their diagnosis through the end of their treatment. They will need emotional support to deal with their frightening diagnosis, as well as help manage the pain caused by their condition and the unpleasant side effects of drug or radiation therapy, some of which will continue even after they have recovered.
•You must be your patient’s advocate – Most people are not at their best when they are ill or in pain. The same goes for the family members who are trying to help their loved one. There will be times when the needs of your patient and the needs of their family members seem to be in conflict. This is when you will need to do whatever is best for your patient. A family member may be pushing your patient to discontinue treatment, for example, or may have become short tempered with them. This is when you will need to step in and ensure that your patient’s needs are met. If this requires calling in law enforcement personnel or alerting social services, that is what you will need to do.
•You will be part of a team – When you are giving palliative nursing care, you will be part of a much bigger medical team, all working for the well being of your patient. The team may include a primary care physician, one or more specialists, pharmacists, physical therapists, social workers and even dietitians. You will need to be willing to coordinate your care choices with these other dedicated professionals.
An admirable calling
Giving your patients the loving care and support they need while they undergo stressful medical procedures or while they are facing the end of life issues is an admirable life’s work. If you can successfully face the unique challenges that this career demands, you will know that you are working at a job that makes a true difference in the lives of your patients.