A palliative care specialist is an expert in helping individuals to manage life-threatening illnesses. He/she usually works as part of a team, alongside other health professionals and specialists, including oncologists, cardiologists, physiotherapists, psychologists and counsellors. This is because the needs of a patient facing a terminal condition are so varied.
The role involves a range of tasks, from assessing pain levels and prescribing appropriate medication, to identifying early symptoms and providing advice about treatment strategies that prolong life. For cancer patients, for example, this might include radiation therapy or chemotherapy. Communicating with individuals about their options and outlook is also an important part of the job.
Some general medicine specialists in palliative care work in hospitals and hospices. Others work in private homes. Others still add a research or advisory component to their job.
All specialists in palliative care must begin with general medical training. This means undertaking one of two pathways. The first is a double degree in Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS), studied over 5 or 6 years. The second is a general medical degree, studied over 4 years, which is open to anyone who holds a bachelor degree in any field. Following study, all graduates are trained in an accredited hospital for at least a year and usually longer.
The final step is advanced training in palliative medicine through the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP).
Steps for Becoming Palliative Care Specialist in Australia
Refer to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) for more information.
Each and every doctor practising in Australia, whether trained in Australia or overseas, must register with the Medical Board of Australia (MBA) and with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).
A general medicine specialist in palliative care must be adept at analysing and synthesising information across a variety of contexts. The needs of a patient in palliative care are not only physical and medicinal, but also emotional and psychological. Even when a specialist is not directly responsible for counselling, he/she should have a solid understanding of the difficulties faced by the terminally ill – on every level.
Having the ability to work well in a team is crucial. Successful palliative care involves a range of health professionals and, to give patients the best treatment possible, specialists must be willing and able to share information and ideas.
Patients suffering from terminal illnesses often suffer acute levels of distress and anxiety. To maximise their mental and emotional well-being, a specialist must have the ability to communicate with compassion, clarity and remain calm.
The field of palliative care is an exciting and evolving one. Specialists should be willing to build on the knowledge gained during training by studying, undertaking courses and attending conferences. Long-term success depends on discipline, curiosity and passion for the field.