MUSC's College of Nursing emphasizes importance of palliative care

April 13, 2022
Dr. Carrie Cormack and student Parag Raychoudhury talk while wearing masks.
Dr. Carrie Cormack talks with College of Nursing graduate student Parag Raychoudhury. Raychoudhury is taking palliative care electives and doing a rotation with the palliative care clinical team at MUSC Health. Photos by Sarah Pack

Future family nurse practitioner Parag Raychoudhury calls her school’s emphasis on palliative care training “super important.” “Palliative care isn’t just about death and dying. Any illness deserves the respect of comfort and what the patient wants,” she said.

She’s learning how to provide that at the College of Nursing at the Medical University of South Carolina, the only nursing school in the state to require all students to get palliative care training through the End of Life Nursing Education Consortium (ELNEC). The consortium, an international effort to improve palliative care, is part of the nonprofit American Association of Colleges of Nursing.

Carrie Cormack, who has a doctor of nursing practice degree, is the lead palliative care faculty member at the College of Nursing. “It is essential that we are including palliative care in our nursing curricula. Nurses must be fully prepared for caring for individuals with serious illness and their families. We definitely didn’t do enough of this in our nursing curriculum in the past,” she said.

Cormack, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing, explained how she describes palliative care to students and patients. “I'll often say the palliative care team is another arm of support for navigating what can often be a very challenging and difficult journey for patients with serious illness and their caregivers.”

two people holding hands. 
Palliative care is designed to improve people's quality of life. Photo by National Cancer Institute via Unsplash

Palliative care is specialized medical care that emphasizes compassion, cultural sensitivity and ensuring that patients and families’ wishes are known. It can help relieve pain and suffering as well as symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, constipation, loss of appetite, depression, difficulty sleeping, anxiety and fatigue that often go along with serious illness. Patients and families also get help managing stress and connecting to available community resources. Palliative care teams aim to improve overall quality of life for patients and their families.

“Education is key. Many people still consider palliative care hospice or end-of-life care. And it's not. I like to think of it more as an umbrella term that describes the overall support that's given to patients and families during difficult times. Ideally, palliative care will start at the time of diagnosis, not necessarily just at end of life or when patients are really, really struggling or seeing kind of a downhill trend in their illness. It's meant to be ongoing throughout a journey of a serious illness,” Cormack said.

Some illnesses whose treatments may benefit from palliative care, according to Cormack:

  • Cancer.
  • Cardiac diseases.
  • Stroke.
  • Diabetes.
  • Kidney disease.
  • Parkinson’s disease.
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
  • Alzheimer’s disease.

Palliative care training for nursing students at MUSC involves self-paced online training modules. “We're very structured in how we roll this out, because the content can be pretty sensitive. This is not something that I would encourage a new nursing student to just go ahead and do on their own. We incorporate group discussions and expert-facilitated lectures with the self-paced modules to give students an opportunity to debrief and talk about it,” Cormack said.

MUSC also offers a post-master’s Doctor of Nursing Practice in Palliative Care degree for students who want to make palliative care a key part of their advanced nursing careers. 

It’s an important shift for a field that was ripe for change. “When I started this work about five years ago, I asked my graduating seniors, 'How comfortable do you feel caring for a patient at end of life or caring for a patient with serious illness?' And the comfort level was not there,” Cormack said.

The hope is that they feel much more comfortable now, with ELNEC training on their resumes. Raychoudhury, the future family nurse practitioner, is also taking the palliative care electives and doing a rotation with the palliative care clinical team at MUSC Health. “I think every day when you take care of a patient, you need to have palliative care in mind,” she said. “Focusing on quality of life is an important part of being a nurse.”

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