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Serving Till the End: Life as a Hospice Nurse


A hospice nurse caring for a dying patient

As nurses, we’re taught to heal. We maintain health and inspire hope in the patients we treat. This notion of healing others is what inspired many nurses to follow their calling and enter healthcare in the first place. It’s vital, critical work, but another field in nursing exists where the objective isn’t to cure. It’s to comfort, and it’s the work of hospice nurses.

Nearly every nurse has encountered a dying patient and had deal with death at least once in their career. It’s a part of the profession, and when you enter the field, you prepare for it. But it takes an especially resilient, compassionate person to become a hospice and palliative care nurse. If you think you can thrive in this environment, keep reading — for the right individual, hospice nursing can be one of the most rewarding specialties out there.

What does a hospice nurse do?

This Is Life As a Palliative Care and Hospice NurseMore and more people are choosing to receive, or have their loved ones receive, palliative care. An estimated 1.7 million people in the U.S. received hospice care in 2014 alone, and with the baby boomer generation aging, that number is expected to increase.

Patients qualify for hospice care if they have a terminal illness and are within their last six months of life. The transition between when treatment stops and when a patient enters and moves through the dying process can be very confusing for many patients and their families. Hospices nurses work to ease this transition by maintaining their patient’s quality of life and delivering comforting measures through their final stages.

Related Resource: How to Cope with Loss As a Nurse

Am I the right kind of person to be a hospice nurse?

Compassion and courage are necessary traits of every nurse, but hospice and palliative care nursing requires much more. In many nursing specialties and settings, there is a set objective to accomplish. Death, however, looks different for every person, and so the best hospice nurses must be compassionate, courageous, and comfortable with uncertainty.

End-of-life care requires a tailored plan to serve each patient’s unique needs and situation. Some of this care will be medically oriented — such as checking vital signs, managing pain, administering medication, and managing and reporting complications — but quite a bit of it is emotionally based. As you can imagine, the shift from prolonging life to end-of-life care is not an easy one for most people deal with on their own. Hospice nurses must learn to live in the moment with their patient, follow their lead, and help them navigate the grey areas of death through holistic care: physical, psychological, social, and spiritual.

Hospices nurses work in a variety of environments. Because hospice patients want to be where they are most comfortable, most of their care (58.9 percent in 2014) is given in their private home or residence. But there are other places where hospice care is provided, like in acute care units, hospital facilities, and hospice agencies.

Related Resource: 8 Benefits of a Holistic Nursing Education

How do I become a hospice nurse?

In order to become a hospice and palliative care nurse, individuals need to complete a nursing program of their choice and pass the NCLEX exam. Certification isn’t necessary, but is becoming increasingly preferred among employers, and it could only help you develop more skills and confidence as a professional end-of-life caregiver.

In order to become credentialed as a certified hospice and palliative nurse (CHPN), applicants must meet the following requirements:

  • Hold an active RN license; and
  • Have 500 hours of nursing experience in a hospice and palliative environment within 12 months prior to taking the exam OR have 1,000 hours within 24 months of taking the exam.

Once you meet this criteria, you are eligible to sit for the CHPN certification exam.

Related Resource: What You Should Know About the Revised Code of Ethics for Nurses

At Ameritech College of Healthcare, we prepare our nursing students for the spectrum of nursing, including caring compassionately for the sick and dying. If you’re interested in our nursing program in Utah, read about what makes our RN program unique, or go ahead and reach out to us with any questions — we’d love to hear from you!