Nation’s first palliative care master’s program to be launched at CU Anschutz Medical Campus

“(Palliative care) is really about understanding patients and family values and understanding what they want,” said oncologist Amos Bailey.

AURORA | The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus recently announced that it plans to add to its growing menu of academic programs next year with the launch of the country’s first master’s degree program in interdisciplinary palliative care.

Approved by the CU Board of Regents by a 7-2 vote at the body’s regular September meeting, the two-year program will focus on the multi-faceted nature of palliative treatment, according to Regina Fink, a registered nurse and associate professor at CU’s College of Nursing and School of Medicine who is helping to launch the new program.

“The big piece is that it’s really important to have a holistic approach … we don’t practice in a vacuum, we practice together,” Fink said. “The students are potentially nurses, nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants and physicians, and they will be taught by those same kind of providers who are specialists at the university already. In addition, there will be instructors who will be specialists in pastoral care, social work, psychology, grief, and biomedical ethics.”

Palliative care centers on improving the quality of life for patients with potentially terminal illnesses and their families, according to Amos Bailey, an oncologist and longtime palliative care provider who is assisting in spearheading the new degree program at CU.

“(Palliative care) is really about understanding patients and family values and understanding what they want,” Bailey said.

The World Health Organization defines palliative care as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual,” according to the organization’s website.

Slated to begin with an enrollment of 18 students online and on campus next summer, interest in the new graduate program is already high, according to Bailey, who said that the school received 575 responses to a SurveyMonkey post and social media push intended to gauge appeal earlier this year. He said about 75 percent of the responses were either marked as “interested” or “very interested.”

“With one blog post and a series of tweets, we were able to get 575 people to respond to a SurveyMonkey, and I think that’s really good evidence of the support (for the program) because that’s just scratching the surface,” Bailey said.

Both Bailey and Fink said that a goal for the program is to attract providers from more rural communities who can become vital regional resources that otherwise wouldn’t exist in those areas.

“We typically want to recruit providers who are working in areas where their hospital or their clinic doesn’t have an active or a strong palliative care program, but they want to provide that service,” Fink said.

There is already a national shortage of qualified palliative providers, with an additional 5,000 people expected to be needed in the field in the coming years, according to Bailey. He said that number could swell to more than 18,000 providers when considering the true time many healthcare professionals are able to commit, specifically, to palliative care.

“Many people who work in palliative care only do it as part of their practice — not their whole practice,” Bailey said. “Not many people work in it full time.”

Colorado has long been a beacon of palliative care progress, however, and an early leader in developing standards for the field. For the nearly 15 years, Fink has worked with Paula Nelson-Marten and Nancy English, who are both professors at the CU College of Nursing, to develop and integrate palliative care course materials into the nursing curriculum.

The new program will offer a certificate in palliative care following the completion of 12-15 credit hours or a full Master’s of Science in Palliative Care upon the completion of the full program. Much of the new curriculum will be based on competencies developed by the Hospice and Palliative Nursing Association, according to Fink, who is a member of the national group.

Bailey said that palliative care is in need of a more rigid and uniform set of qualifications for providers, something he said the new CU program will foster. He added that having doctors piecemeal best practices together throughout their careers is no longer an appropriate means of helping patients.

“For a lot of us, we had to learn on the job and I just don’t think that’s acceptable any longer,” he said. “That’s just not the way such an important part of our practice should be learned.”

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