Palliative care is defined as a practice with emphasis on maintaining and improving a patient’s quality of life that can be incorporated at any stage during the disease process. With a focus on symptom management and identifying clear goals of care, palliative care plays a vital part in optimizing quality of life. Currently, palliative care services are offered at a multitude of health care organizations that may consist of a team of physicians, advance practice nurses, social workers, chaplain services, etc. And although palliative care can be beneficial for the patient and their loved ones, there are still many barriers preventing its integration in care delivery. This can result from a misunderstanding of what palliative care can offer, its presumed synonym to hospice, late referrals to the palliative team, or a complete lack of consultation where a patient could have benefited. However, how can direct care nurses integrate the principles of palliative care in their everyday clinical practice?
Palliative care is multifaceted; however, some essential components include pain control, symptom management, and addressing goals of care.
Regarding pain control, the direct care nurse can begin by completing a comprehensive pain assessment. By understanding how to properly assess a patient’s pain, nurses can have a better understanding on how to effectively treat it. While the Numeric Rating Scale can provide some insight to the severity of pain, nurses can also utilize the OPQRST mnemonic to supplement their pain assessment.
- Onset: Was the pain sudden or developed gradually? What were you doing when the pain began?
- Provocation: What makes the pain worse? What makes the pain better?
- Quality: Could you describe the pain? Words like sharp, stabbing, burning can help the nurse better understand what the patient feels.
- Region: Is the pain localized in one area of the body or does it move?
- Severity: From a scale of 1 – 10 with 1 being minimal pain to 10 being extreme pain, how would you rate your pain?
- Time: When did the pain start? Have you experienced this type of pain before?
A functional assessment plays a very important role in controlling pain as well. For example, if a patient states no pain staying in only one position however discomfort when standing or sitting, that patient would be described as having limited functional ability due to inadequate pain relief. Providing efficient pain relief does have its barriers. Patients may be hesitant to accept narcotics in fear of being seen as drug-seeking or they may feel apprehensive to admitting they have pain. Because of this, education is especially important to allow patients better control of their symptoms.
Additional tools that a nurse can incorporate in their pain assessment are noticing body behaviors, like those presented in the Face, Legs, Activity, Cry, Consolability (FLACC) scale for children as well as non-verbal adults. A patient may state minimal pain; however, grimacing, clenched teeth, sweating, and tachycardia might indicate otherwise. Finally, when an intervention is implemented, such as medication, a pain reassessment should be conducted within an appropriate timeframe to evaluate its effectiveness. However, if repeated ineffectiveness of the current pain regimen, nurses should feel empowered to inquire about a proper pain management consult if services are provided at that health care institution.
From a physiological standpoint, multiple symptoms can prove to be quite challenging in supporting a patient’s comfort level. Symptoms such as shortness of breath, consistent coughing, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea can be a difficult burden. Hospitalized patients introduced to new medications and treatments are at risk for developing side effects, which is why medication education is especially important for patients in understanding what they may expect. For example, opioid treatment may be met with resistance for fear of its constipating side effect; however, effective management is possible by addressing fears, providing education, and potentially supplementing with a stool softener.
While pharmacological interventions are utilized more often in the hospital environment, manipulating the environment can provide some benefit as well. For example, in conjunction to oxygen support and medication, having a fan blow cool air in the direction of the patient or lowering the temperature in the room can provide some additional relief. Dyspnea is not always caused by a patient’s low oxygen saturation as contributing factors such as anxiety could produce the feeling of difficulty of breathing.
Coughing can interfere with adequate sleep and oral intake and can lead to physical exhaustion. Positioning and removing environmental irritants can be supplementary interventions that can be utilized alongside medications. A full respiratory assessment should be conducted, especially in regard to assessing the characteristics of a patient’s cough. Adjectives such as dry, moist, and productive can help the provider prescribe the appropriate medication.
Constipation and diarrhea attributed by underlying disease or medication side effects are distressing and exhausting symptoms that impacts patient mood and dignity. What can be done to help alleviate these symptoms? In regard to medication-induced constipation, commonly seen through opioid usage, prophylactic laxatives/stool softeners can be started to help potential side effects. Having a consistent regimen and re-evaluating its effectiveness allows the nurse to assess if the patients’ constipation is being managed appropriately.
Communication is the foundation of palliative care; through proper communication and transparency amongst the health care team can patients and families make informed decisions around their treatment options. The nurse is pivotal in accompanying the patient through the illness journey, whether it be simply through active listening and presence to ultimately providing guidance regarding treatment effectiveness. This nurse-patient relationship is built on trust and through supporting patients and families to be active participants in their care.
How can direct care nurses improve their communication skills, especially when it comes to a goal of care conversation? One strategy that can be implemented is to utilize open-ended questions. Questions such as “What do you understand about your medical condition?” elicits the patient’s perspective of their disease course. The conversation can delve deeper potentially into the patient’s perspective of their prognosis and the treatment options they believe to be available. This Ask-Tell-Ask strategy explores the patient’s understanding first before the nurse provides information. This back and forth cycle between the patient and nurses addresses four main principles: the patient’s perspective, information that needs to be delivered, response to the patient’s emotions, and recommendations from the nurse. When delivering information, the nurse should avoid using medical jargon and speak in simple terms. Finally, trust and compassion provide a foundation of effective palliative communication. Many times, when palliative care is discussed, the conversation can be somber as it may be dealing with advanced illness and burdensome symptoms. Therapeutic presence results in empathy, thus creating a safe space to discuss difficult issues.
Unfortunately, barriers still exist that prevent palliative care from being effectively delivered to those patients who would benefit from it the most. Palliative care is time and time again mistaken with death or hospice, thus resulting in reluctance to appropriate consults being in place. Additionally, some nurses may feel inadequate in engaging the patient and family in palliative topics or believe that these conversations should be solely conducted by the physician. Nurses need to be involved in overcoming these barriers to reduce misconceptions and ensure that other health care providers, patients, and families understand the benefit of palliative care implementation. These benefits include early focus on comfort treatments, reduction in cost of care, and overall decreased length of stay. Nurses play a crucial role in palliative care, and with continued self-education and engagement can the direct care nurse utilize their skills and knowledge to benefit their patients by acting as that essential extra layer of support.