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How to Become a Palliative Care Nurse

NurseJournal Staff
Updated August 8, 2022
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Palliative care nursing helps people in need of compassionate care. Explore how to become a palliative care nurse and what the work is like.
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Palliative care nurses assist patients, especially terminal patients, by helping them manage pain and other symptoms. This care helps patients and their loved ones face their conditions or deaths with dignity and a minimum of suffering.

This guide on how to become a palliative care nurse explains earning your license and gaining experience in the field. Discover more about palliative care nursing and see if it is the right career for you.

What Is a Palliative Care Nurse?

Palliative care nurses care for patients with serious, long-term, and painful conditions. While hospice nursing and palliative care overlap, palliative care nursing is not restricted to terminal patients.

Patients receive palliative care in hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice facilities. With increasing regularity, patients now receive palliative care in their homes.

Becoming a palliative care nurse requires the ability to care for terminal patients and patients experiencing pain. It often involves helping the patient and their loved ones emotionally in addition to providing medical care.

Palliative care nursing calls for strong communication skills, empathy, and the ability to maintain professionalism and high ethical standards. The professionalism and ethics are important when patients or their families do not understand the medical or ethical limitations of the care you can provide.

Steps to Becoming a Palliative Care Nurse

To become a palliative care nurse, you must first qualify as a registered nurse (RN) by earning a nursing degree and passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) examination. Then you can begin work in palliative care and, if you choose, earn a relevant certification.

  1. 1

    Earn an ADN or BSN Degree From an Accredited Program

    If you are just starting nursing, there are two education options for becoming a palliative care nurse: a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). If you already have an ADN, you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX to Receive RN Licensure

    The NCLEX-RN examination is a multi-hour multiple-choice exam that covers all topics related to providing safe, effective, ethical, and legal nursing care. A school’s NCLEX-RN pass rate is an excellent indicator of its quality.

  3. 3

    Gain Experience in Palliative Care Nursing

    You can gain experience in hospice care, long-term residential care, or specialty fields such as oncology care or pediatric care.

  4. 4

    Consider Becoming a Certified Palliative Care Nurse

    Certification, unlike licensing, is not a legal requirement for palliative care nursing. Instead, it shows your commitment and knowledge of a specialty area. The Hospice and Palliative Credentialing Center (HPCC) offers Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse (CHPN) certification. You need to pass the certification exam, and have at least 500 hours of hospice and palliative nursing experience in the last 12 months or 1,000 hours in the last 24 months.

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Palliative Care Nurse Education

When choosing how to become a palliative care nurse, consider your budget, responsibilities, timeframe, and goals. An ADN is faster and cheaper if your priority is qualifying as soon as possible and your budget is limited.

Many employers, however, prefer a BSN for higher-level roles, and a BSN also prepares you to earn a master of science in nursing (MSN) if you would like to become an advanced practice nurse (APRN).

Palliative Care Nurse Licensure and Certification

To become a palliative care nurse, you need an RN license. Nurses maintain RN licenses by continuing professional education.

Most employers fund this education. You can attend approved medical or nursing conferences or classes, participate in approved online education, or read approved materials and pass a test on the contents.

Many employers require or prefer certification. The HPCC offers several certification options for nurses at all levels, including two for RNs: Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse (CHPN) and Certified Hospice and Palliative Pediatric Nurse (CHPPN).

Both require a passing grade on the certification examination. Both certifications have an experience requirement too: at least 500 hours of hospice and palliative nursing experience (or pediatric care) in the last 12 months, or 1,000 hours in the last 24 months.

Working as a Palliative Care Nurse

Palliative care nurses may provide care in hospitals, long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, or in patient homes. Palliative care nursing calls for collaborating with fellow healthcare providers or other professionals, such as social workers and clergy, as well as family members.

Palliative care nursing can be emotionally demanding, but also intensely rewarding. Helping patients manage pain and other symptoms makes a tremendous difference for them and their loved ones. In 2020, the median salary for a palliative care nurse was $70,000, according to the 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey (table 37).

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Palliative Care Nurse

question-mark-circleHow long does it take to become a palliative care nurse?

It takes at least two years to become a palliative care nurse. Earning an ADN degree takes two years and a BSN takes four years. You need at least 500 hours of experience to earn CHPN certification.

question-mark-circleWhat do palliative care nurses do?

Palliative nursing care helps patients manage pain and other symptoms of serious and terminal conditions. This includes administering pain medication and non-pharmaceutical treatments such as feeding tubes or breathing support. It also involves emotional support for patients and their loved ones.

question-mark-circleIs a palliative care nurse the same as a hospice nurse?

Hospice nursing care focuses on treating terminal patients during the last six months of life, while palliative care treats both terminal patients and non-terminal patients who have long-term painful conditions. The skills and approaches overlap, but are not exactly the same.

question-mark-circleDo palliative care nurses get paid well?

According to the 2020 National Nursing Workforce Survey, the median annual salary for palliative care RNs is $70,000, roughly the same as the median for all RNs. Ongoing workplace shortages are likely to keep salaries for palliative care nursing competitive.

Page Last Reviewed: July 18, 2022

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