How to Become a Palliative Care Nurse

Learn how palliative care nurses blend the scientific, mental and spiritual dimensions in “whole” patient care.

Close up of a nurse using a stethoscope

Mental health disorders affect millions of people, and the prevalence of these conditions is expected to increase in the coming years. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the need for mental health services, with many people experiencing increased levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. These concerns are equally relevant for patients with serious or terminal illnesses, as well as for the family members of such patients.

Palliative care nursing can play an important role in providing specialized care for patients who are facing life-threatening illnesses and the family members that often care for them. Palliative care nurses work closely with patients and families to manage pain and other symptoms, provide emotional support, and help patients navigate complex healthcare systems. This can include medication management, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and other evidence-based interventions to improve mental health outcomes—all of which focus on improving quality of life and reducing pain and suffering.

These potential rewards make palliative care nursing a fulfilling and meaningful career choice. The purpose of this article is to provide a comprehensive guide for individuals who are interested in pursuing a career as a palliative care nurse. The article aims to provide an overview of the steps required to become a palliative nurse, including earning a nursing degree, obtaining a nursing license and certification, and seeking employment in the field. Learn more about how to become a Registered Nurse and explore different types of nursing jobs and the education, training, and certifications required to perform these jobs.

Palliative Care Nurse Definition

What is a Palliative Care Nurse?

Palliative care nursing is a specialized area of healthcare that not only addresses physical symptoms, but also the emotional, social, and spiritual needs of patients with serious illnesses, with a focus on improving quality of life and reducing suffering. Patients with serious illnesses often experience significant emotional distress, including anxiety, depression, and fear. Palliative care nurses are trained to provide emotional support and to help patients and families cope with the challenges of serious illness through counseling, spiritual care, or other interventions to support mental health and well-being.

Palliative Care Nurse: Job Description

What Does a Palliative Care Nurse Do?

Palliative care nurses work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals such as physicians, social workers, chaplains, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals to develop and implement care plans that address patients’ physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. They also communicate regularly with other members of the healthcare team to ensure that patients receive the support they need.

The primary duties and responsibilities of palliative care nurses may include pain and symptom management, emotional and spiritual support, care coordination, and end-of-life care—helping patients and families to navigate the dying process with dignity and compassion. Palliative care nurses serve a variety of patients with serious illnesses such as those with cancer, heart failure, and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, or multiple sclerosis. They work with patients who have chronic respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or cystic fibrosis, patients with advanced kidney disease, and those living with AIDS/HIV, providing support to help manage symptoms and address the unique social and emotional needs of patients and families.

Lastly, patient education is a critical component of palliative care nursing. By providing education and support to patients and families, palliative care nurses can 1) empower them to make informed decisions by providing them with accurate and up-to-date information about their illness and treatment options, 2) improve communication between patients, families, and healthcare providers by providing education about the illness and treatment options, 3) reduce anxiety and fear by providing education about what to expect as the illness progresses, and 4) support self-management, which can help patients to feel more in control of their symptoms and better able to cope with the challenges of their illness.

Nurse bedside with senior patient

Palliative Care Nurse Duties

The day-to-day responsibilities of a palliative care nurse may vary depending on the setting and the needs of the patients they serve. However, these examples provide a general idea of the types of responsibilities that a palliative care nurse may have.

  • Conducting patient assessments to identify physical, emotional, social, and spiritual needs.
  • Developing and implementing individualized care plans in collaboration with the interdisciplinary team.
  • Administering medications and treatments as prescribed, and monitoring for side effects.
  • Providing education and support to patients and families about the illness, treatment options, and self-management strategies.
  • Documenting patient care and progress in electronic medical records.
  • Communicating and coordinating care with healthcare providers and family members to ensure continuity of care.
  • Providing emotional support, counseling and advocacy to patients and families.
  • Managing symptoms, such as pain, nausea, and anxiety, through medications, relaxation techniques, and other interventions.
  • Supporting patients and families during end-of-life care, including facilitating advance care planning and providing emotional support.

Palliative Care Nurse Skills

Palliative care nursing is a challenging and rewarding career that requires a unique set of skills and qualities. Here are some of the essential skills and qualities that are needed for success in palliative care nursing:

Compassion and Empathy: Palliative care nurses must be compassionate and empathetic towards patients and families who are dealing with serious illnesses and end-of-life care. They must be able to connect with patients and provide emotional support during difficult times.

Communication Skills: Palliative care nurses must be skilled communicators who can explain complex medical information in a way that patients and families can understand. They must also be able to communicate effectively with other members of the interdisciplinary team.

Cultural Competency: Palliative care nurses must be culturally competent and able to provide care that is sensitive to the needs and values of diverse patient populations.

Flexibility and Adaptability: Palliative care nurses must be flexible and adaptable, as patient needs and situations can change rapidly. They must be able to adjust care plans and interventions as needed.

Self-Care: Palliative care nurses are often exposed to emotionally demanding patients and families and must practice good self-care and manage stress to prevent burnout and maintain their own health and well-being.

Knowledge and Expertise: Palliative care nurses must have a strong knowledge base in areas such as pain management, symptom management, end-of-life care, and ethics. They must also stay up to date with the latest research and best practices in palliative care.

Critical Thinking: Palliative care nurses must be able to think critically and make informed decisions in complex situations. They must be able to identify and prioritize patient needs, develop and implement effective care plans, perform symptom management, and collaborate and communicate with interdisciplinary teams effectively.

Where Do Palliative Care Nurses Work?

Palliative care nurses work in a variety of settings, depending on the needs of the patient and the goals of the healthcare plan. Care settings may include hospitals, hospice, home health, long-term care facilities, palliative care clinics, as well as academic settings where palliative care nurses provide education and training to nursing students or other healthcare professionals who are interested in palliative care.

Palliative care nursing is a dynamic and growing field that offers a range of career opportunities beyond bedside care. Palliative care nurses can apply their skills and expertise to a range of roles, from leadership positions such as being a palliative care program director or policy advocate to being a palliative care researcher, educator, or consultant. As the demand for palliative care continues to grow, the need for skilled and dedicated palliative care nurses will only continue to increase.

Multi-ethnic group of nursing students

Palliative Care Nurse Schooling & Certification

How Long Does it Take to Become a Palliative Care Nurse?

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Palliative Care Nurse?

It is important for palliative care nurses to have a solid foundation in nursing practice and theory before pursuing specialized training in palliative care.

Earn a nursing degree

To become a palliative care nurse, one must first complete a nursing program and earn a nursing degree, either an associate degree in nursing (ADN), which can be completed in two years or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, which is usually completed in four years.

For RN’s with an associate degree who wish to advance their careers by earning a BSN degree, Eagle Gate College offers a RN-to-BSN program, which provides RN’s with necessary knowledge and skills to seek management positions, higher salaries, and leadership roles within the nursing field.

Get licensed as an RN
In order to work as a registered nurse (RN), individuals must be licensed by the state in which they wish to practice. To obtain a nursing license, individuals must typically pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) and meet other state-specific requirements.

Complete palliative care certifications

While palliative care nursing certifications are not required to work in the field, they can demonstrate expertise and dedication to the specialty. To become certified, nurses must typically complete an application and meet certain eligibility requirements, such as having a certain amount of experience in palliative care nursing.

  • Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse (ACHPN): The Advanced Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse (ACHPN) credential is designed for RNs who have specialized training and experience in hospice and palliative care nursing.
  • Hospice and Palliative Nursing Assistant (HPNA) certification: The Hospice and Palliative Nursing Assistant (HPNA) certification is designed for nursing assistants and other non-RN staff who work in palliative care settings.

Ongoing education and certification maintenance
Continuing education can include attending conferences, completing online courses, and participating in mentorship programs. Certification maintenance typically involves completing a certain number of continuing education hours and renewing the certification on a regular basis. Ongoing education and certification maintenance ensures that palliative care professionals are up to date on the latest developments in the field.

Palliative Care Nurse Salary

How Much Do Palliative Care Nurses Make?

Although the BLS doesn’t report salary* data specifically for Palliative Care Nurses, we can refer to the data for Registered Nurses (RNs). According to the BLS, the average annual wage for RNs in the United States was about $89,000 or about $43 per hour.

Factors that may affect salary* for palliative care nurses include geographic location, level of education, and experience. Nurses in urban areas and in states with higher costs of living generally earn higher salaries. Nurses with advanced degrees or specialized certifications may also earn higher salaries, as well as those with many years of experience in the field.

Palliative Care Nurse Job Outlook

What is the Job Outlook for Neonatal Nurse Practitioners?

Although the BLS doesn’t report job outlook data specifically for Palliative Care Nurses or Neonatal Nurse Practitioners, we can refer to the data for Registered Nurses (RNs). According to the BLS, employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 6 percent from 2021 to 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. This growth is due in part to an aging population and the increasing need for primary care and specialty care services, including palliative care.

In terms of career advancement opportunities, palliative care nurses may choose to pursue advanced degrees, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), which can lead to roles in management, administration, education, or research. They may also choose to obtain certifications in specialized areas of palliative care, such as pain management or hospice care. These advanced qualifications can increase their chances of career advancement and higher salaries.

Smiling African-American nurse

Start Your Career by Earning a BSN Degree

In this article, we have discussed the career path of becoming a palliative care nurse, including their primary duties and responsibilities, the necessary education and certification requirements, potential career opportunities, and the job outlook for this profession. One important aspect highlighted in this article is the role palliative care nurses play in promoting mental health and wellness for not only patients, but the families of patients who are suffering from serious illnesses or challenges with end-of-life care. Overall, palliative care nursing is a unique blend of physical, psychosocial, and spiritual care that offers no small measure of personal and professional gratification. This growing field offers a deeply rewarding and fulfilling career path that makes an undeniable impact on the lives of patients and their families.

To get started on the path to becoming a Palliative Care Nurse, explore the BSN Program at Eagle Gate College. Or, if you already work as an RN with an associate degree, consider our RN-to-BSN Program to advance your career opportunities.