How to prepare for palliative and end-of-life care when becoming a nurse

While all branches of nursing are demanding, there are some unique challenges around palliative and end-of-life care.

A role in these areas requires specialist personal and clinical skills to ensure that quality care can be delivered.

Nurses working in this field will automatically deliver many of the requirements for this role, having great interpersonal skills and the ability to work under pressure and with compassion.

In addition, there are many ways that they can prepare for a career pathway in end-of-life and palliative care, including embarking on higher education courses.

If this is a branch of nursing that interests you, then keep reading as we’re going to explain how to pave the way for a career in palliative or end-of-life care.

Once you’ve read our article, you’ll know what to do and how to take the first step toward a fulfilling area of nursing that will enable you to care for people at a time when they need you the most.

What is palliative and end-of-life care?

Palliative care is the care offered to patients once they have a terminal diagnosis. They can receive it at any stage after this diagnosis and at the same time as treatment used to control (but not cure) their disease – for example, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

This means that some patients may receive palliative care for a long time, sometimes for years, which makes it different from end-of-life care.

As the name suggests, end-of-life care is care provided to patients right at the end of their lives and focuses on offering the best quality of life in their last months, weeks and days. It tends to be offered when patients are believed to be in their last year of life.

Both palliative and end-of-life care involve managing symptoms and can also include helping to address patients’ emotional, psychological and spiritual needs.

Both types of care can also include offering practical advice and support to the family of the patient.

These types of care are holistic, meaning that they look at the entirety of the patient’s needs, and are designed to offer support and care rather than provide a solution to an illness.

Palliative and end-of-life care can be given at the patient’s home or in a hospital, hospice or care home.

What is the role of a palliative or end-of-life care nurse?

A palliative or end-of-life care nurse has a wide range of duties that require many different skills and competencies.

These are some of the tasks that they carry out:

  • Providing basic medical care: This includes taking observations, giving the patient medication and treatments, providing help with personal hygiene and making the patient comfortable.
  • Coordinating pain relief: Pain relief is an important part of palliative and end-of-life care. A specialist nurse will assess their patient’s pain status and offer solutions to manage them – for example, offering oral medicines, drug injections or medicine pumps.
  • Managing other symptoms: A palliative or end-of-life care nurse will also offer solutions to manage other symptoms associated with their patient’s illness. These can include difficulty breathing, insomnia, depression and anxiety. This may mean that the specialist nurse refers the patient to other healthcare professionals so that they can treat certain symptoms.
  • Offering information to the patient and their family: Palliative and end-of-life nurses are a source of information about the patient’s condition, explaining symptoms, the expected progression of their illness, and what to expect from the dying process.
  • Managing medical records and paperwork: These specialist nurses also manage and coordinate medical records and paperwork connected to the patient. This includes prescriptions, observations and letters regarding the patient and their care between healthcare professionals. This means that they will have a scrupulous understanding of accuracy of records as well as privacy and data protection.
  • Coordinating other aspects of care: A palliative or end-of-life nurse will also liaise with other healthcare professionals who may be providing other aspects of care – for example, physical therapists or support groups.
  • Supporting the patient’s family and loved ones: Palliative care and end-of-life nurses can also offer support to the family and loved ones of the patients under their care, informing them of what to expect and helping them to process their feelings. This may involve signposting them to other services, such as counseling.
  • Continuous professional development: All healthcare professionals have a duty to continuously develop themselves, stay current with healthcare innovations in their field and learn about the latest research – this is all part and parcel of a palliative or end-of-life care nurse’s role.

What kind of environment do palliative and end-of-life care nurses work in?

Many palliative and end-of-life care nurses work in a clinical environment such as a hospital with a special unit or ward for this area. In this setting, palliative and end-of-life care nurses not only offer care for patients and their families, but also liaise with many other healthcare professionals in this bustling environment.

They may also work in hospices – care facilities dedicated solely to looking after people in end-of-life situations. The environment is generally more homely than a hospital with relaxed visiting hours and many activities and supporting therapies offered to patients.

Palliative and end-of-life care nurses may also care for patients in their own homes (or in a care home), sometimes visiting them on a daily basis for a period of time and offering one-to-one help and support.

What is the route to this career pathway?

To get to be a palliative or end-of-life care nurse, you will need to first embark on a pathway that will qualify you as a nurse – this is a Diploma of Nursing, an Associate of Nursing or a Bachelor of Nursing program.

Once you’ve completed one of these courses, you will need to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) for your state. When you pass, you will be entitled to apply for your registered nurse (RN) license and start practicing as a nurse.

While you’re getting some practical experience as a nurse, you can take further certifications specializing in palliative or end-of-life care.

You may also consider studying for a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). This advanced qualification is designed to add to experienced nurses’ skills, equipping them with the additional knowledge they need to progress their career in directions such as palliative and end-of-life care.

An MSN will also prepare you for roles that encompass leadership and innovation, taking you to the very top of your profession.

It’s an excellent grounding for any aspiring palliative or end-of-life care nurse as it will give you the confidence to not only branch out in this area but to also mentor, lead and direct care from a strategic level – enabling you to contribute to improving the patient experience and creating a better future for care.

For busy nurses, MSN online programs are a popular route to achieving this goal. When you’re juggling your duties as a nurse and your commitments outside of work, it may feel like a challenge to fit in study to progress your career. With an online program, such as the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) – Nurse Practitioner course offered by Wilkes University, you can continue with your existing commitments without the need to travel to campus to study. You can complete the course at a pace and in a location that suits you.

While the coursework is 100% online, clinical placements are also part of the offer, so you get the best of both worlds. A support team will be right behind you to ensure that your placements fulfill necessary criteria and work for you.

You can rest assured that the Wilkes University online MSN is of the highest quality, focusing on advanced clinical skills and evidence-based practice. With graduates from Wilkes University demonstrating pass rates above the national average, you can be confident that this is a program you can count on to further your career.

If you’re in a hurry to progress, you only need one year of RN practice to apply and you can qualify in as little as two years, setting you on the path to becoming a palliative or end-of-care nurse sooner than you thought possible!

What is the outlook for palliative and end-of-life care nurses?

The role of palliative or end-of-life care nurse offers many opportunities to progress in this important area of nursing, providing essential care to patients most in need.

You can even start in this area before obtaining your license by working as a nursing assistant. This will give you a taste of whether palliative and end-of-life care is for you. In this role, you will offer basic care to patients and get a feel of your working environment, its challenges and its rewards.

Once you’ve qualified as a nurse and have obtained your license to practice, you can continue your experience in this area with additional responsibilities.

If you choose to go on to study further for a qualification such as an MSN, you will be in a position to work as a nurse practitioner in palliative or end-of-life care. This role entails a whole raft of extra duties and will give you more freedom to manage patients’ healthcare and prescribe medications, for example.

Whichever level you practice at, a career in palliative and end-of-life care is one of the most rewarding for any healthcare professional. You will be helping patients and their families at the most challenging time in their lives and can make a real difference to their end-of-life experience.

You will also find this area of work a stimulating one from a medical point of view, with each patient presenting their own unique challenges and triumphs. Working with terminally ill patients is a true privilege, offering a great deal of job satisfaction.

As well as the fulfilment of looking after patients when they are most in need, this career pathway is rewarding from a financial perspective. According to PayScale, the average salary for a palliative care nurse in 2023 was $76,500 a year.

Nurses may go on to achieve higher salaries if they work their way up to a senior position, such as a nurse practitioner specializing in palliative care, for example.

This is certainly possible with a qualification such as an MSN, which will set you up with the background knowledge and the confidence that you’ll need for a dynamic career in nursing leadership in your chosen area.

Palliative and end-of-life care could be what you’re looking for

Not only is palliative and end-of-life care an immensely rewarding area for nurses to branch into, but it also offers many chances to progress up the career ladder and enjoy the satisfaction of a rewarding job.

If you are seeking a pathway that offers challenges as well as rewards such as the satisfaction of helping patients when they are at their most vulnerable, then palliative and end-of-life care could be what you are looking for.

To build on your existing skills and lay the foundations for a career in this stimulating area, consider an online MSN, such as the program offered by Wilkes University.

It’s the most convenient way to achieve your study and career goals, and will set you up on a path toward professional and personal satisfaction in the area of palliative and end-of-life care.

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