When someone is diagnosed with a life-limiting illness, they often are offered some form of palliative care. Palliative care, or specialized medical care for people with severe illness, is a holistic interdisciplinary specialty that centers on helping patients find relief from symptoms, stress and pain of their illnesses.
Usually associated with hospice, palliative care is different in that it can last for years. Hospice patients are admitted generally when they have six months or fewer to live. Many hospice providers do offer palliative care to their patients in order to treat and manage their pain and symptoms.
Palliative care is generally a long-term situation, meaning patients and their families interact frequently with the same nurses and doctors. The nurses work closely and collaborate with a team that usually includes social workers, physicians and spiritual advisers.
What Does a Palliative Care Nurse Do?
The nurse plays an instrumental role in successful palliative care – he or she is the primary contact with the patient and their family, which means they need to be well-versed in offering emotional support to their patients. They also need to be able to provide comfort and advice while helping patients focus on facing their own mortality.
Palliative care requires knowledge in several areas to provide the best care, including:
- Pain management
- Symptom management
- Psychosocial and spiritual care
- Cultural awareness
- Grief and loss issues
- End-stage disease process
- Educating patients and families on next steps
Working in this specialty can be stressful, as most patients are close to the end of their lives. It’s a necessary specialty, though, as the American population ages.
Palliative care nurses work in many settings, but most work in areas where patients are aging or have chronic conditions, such as cancer or late-stage dementia. Hospital units such as critical care, oncology and geriatrics usually employ palliative care nurses. They may also work in nursing homes and in private home health care.
Since this is a high-stress position, a palliative care nurse should take additional precautions in order to avoid burnout in their jobs.
Palliative Care Nursing Job Growth and Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not specifically track palliative care nursing as a career, but predicts the need for registered nurses will increase 15% by 2026. As of May 2016, registered nurses earned an average annual wage of $68,450.
Pay rates and job availability vary based on a number of factors, including geographic location and the status of the jobs market. Candidates should conduct their own research when seeking a job as a palliative care nurse.
How to Become a Palliative Care Nurse
Before deciding to work in this specialty, it’s important to realize that this is a specialty that covers many areas. Palliative care nurses need to be well-versed in psychosocial and holistic care, as well as the typical medical training a registered nurse receives.
Most palliative care nurses are registered nurses, but many go on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). To work as a palliative care nurse, you need to pass the NCLEX-RN national licensing exam, as well as train and take other certifications as required by states.
The Hospice and Palliative Credentialing Center provides a certification exam. Requirements may vary by state, so check with your state to make sure you have everything needed to become a palliative care nurse.