As Palliative Care’s Importance Grows, UCSF Nursing Expands Training

UCSF School of Nursing professor DorAnne Donesky works with a patient, teaching her to exercise safely without overtaxing her lungs. Photo by Elisabeth Fall

People who live with serious chronic illness often bounce in and out of the hospital, struggle to get the treatment they need and overall experience a poor quality of life.

Now, increasing research is supporting what many health care providers have long known: comprehensive palliative care that treats both symptoms and a person’s emotional needs can significantly improve a patient’s daily life – and in many cases prolong life, too.

These known successes are a big part of why the UCSF School of Nursing started a new palliative care minor for advanced practice nursing students.

Learn More and Apply

​Visit the UCSF School of Nursing website to read about the palliative care minor.

The recent push also came from both hospitals looking to hire and nursing students who asked for more palliative care training, said DorAnne Donesky, PhD, ANP-BC, a nursing professor who spearheaded the creation of the minor with palliative care physician Wendy Anderson, MS, MD.

“Employers also came to us saying, ‘We’re hiring lots of palliative care providers and new graduates who are coming to us are not well prepared,’” said Donesky. Hospital hiring teams told Donesky that they would hire nurses specifically trained in palliative care first if they were choosing between multiple job candidates.

Donesky has seen the benefits of palliative care firsthand with her patients who have chronic lung and heart conditions.  

She recalls one patient diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and heart failure whose doctors gave her a few months to live. The patient was put on hospice, given medication and nonpharmacologic strategies for symptom control and trained with breathing techniques. With this simple but attentive care, she “graduated” from hospice and a year later she’s medically stable, enjoying her family, home and daily gym exercise.

Meeting a Growing Need

The UCSF palliative care minor is designed to match the national competencies for palliative care so students can take the certification exam.  The minor includes two base courses and an elective, and Donesky also works with students to get them a clinical placement with a palliative care faculty mentor.  For certification students need 500 hours of practice, which they begin to accumulate during the minor.

Leading in Palliative Care

This new minor adds to UCSF’s long tradition of training providers in palliative care, said Steven Pantilat, MD, the founding director of the UCSF Palliative Care Program and recent winner of a California Hospital Association award. Here are some highlights:

  • UCSF’s inpatient palliative care unit, established in 1999, is one of the oldest in the state, and sees 800 patients annually.
  • UCSF runs a national palliative care leadership center that has trained over 200 hospitals across the country how to run interdisciplinary palliative care teams.
  • The University’s School of Medicine offers four fellowships each year to train physicians in palliative care techniques and its team approach to care.
  • Pantilat runs the Palliative Care Quality Network, which works with more than 25 palliative care teams nationwide to improve the quality of patient care. The teams work together to collect data on patients in real time, and share that data to improve care.

Palliative care focuses on treating the whole patient with the goal of improving quality of life by addressing everything from symptoms to emotions to family members’ concerns. Research has shown that palliative care improves patients’ symptoms, including pain and depression. And some data suggest that compared to regular care, it prolongs life.

“People are realizing that symptom management and quality of life are really important, separate aspects of care,” said Donesky.

In addition to offering patients standard medications for pain and symptoms, palliative care nurses also teach patients non-pharmaceutical approaches to managing their own health. Donesky said her patients with lung illnesses benefit from learning simple breathing techniques and incorporating exercise into their daily routines. These successes aren’t only good for the patient, it also helps to avoid unnecessary and costly emergency department visits and lengthy hospital stays. While this coordinated care relies on a team of health care providers, in most cases it’s more efficient and more cost effective.      

“Palliative care is a team sport,” said Donesky; the core team typically includes a nurse, a physician, a chaplain and a social worker, but varies depending on a patient’s needs. Together these providers work to give patients back some control over their health by training them with techniques to manage pain and self care.   

Donesky said when people hear palliative care, many think of the dying.  While hospice does provide palliative care for end of life patients, palliative care as a whole is really about creating the best quality of life for patients with acute or chronic illnesses or cancer that can be managed, sometimes for years or decades.   

Treating the Emotional Side, Too

Oftentimes a big part of treatment is helping patients cope with the emotional distress that their diagnosis brings up.  

“A lot of patients are in distress related to relationships that have not been mended, or thinking about where their place is in the world, will their life have meaning, what will be their legacy after they’re gone. Those more spiritual issues are also addressed in palliative care,” said Donesky.

That’s why a big focus of the UCSF palliative care minor is communication skills, from difficult conversations with patients’ families to addressing a patient’s emotional concerns.

Donesky has an extensive background in navigating these kinds of health care communications, including ongoing training with VitalTalk, a highly respected training program that developed out of NIH-funded research. She’s incorporating these techniques in teaching her students.

"As clinicians, it’s scary to talk about these topics, we might be afraid we’re going to open a can of worms,” said Donesky. “But if instead of resisting, we jump in, and say, ‘I suspect you’re having concern with: fill in the blank.’ Often, it just opens the floodgates, and it doesn’t take that long to solve it.”

Donesky said employers specifically want to hire nurses who have advanced training in managing and negotiating these kinds of conversations.

UCSF nursing master’s student Julia Itsikson agrees.

“I believe communication is a cornerstone of this whole program,” Itsikson said. “This is really the bottom line, how do you approach sensitive topics at critical pivotal moment of somebody’s life—it’s not easy.”

Itsikson was accepted into the palliative care minor, which just began this quarter. In addition to coursework, Itsikson is doing clinical work at Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, where there’s an entire unit that focuses on palliative care. 

Itsikson said learning firsthand from an experienced nurse has been invaluable: “I watch my preceptor and it just blows me away every time; the words she finds, her mannerism, her tone of voice – all of this is so critical and important.”

Donesky said as the palliative care minor becomes more established, she’d like to create a multidisciplinary continuing education training that would be open to all kinds of health care providers, including nurses, social workers, chaplains, pharmacists, physical therapists and dentists.