End-of-life care: Nursing school tries new approach to prepare nurses for patient deaths

The College of Nursing at the University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) is trying a dramatically different approach to prepare nurses for the situations they will face when assisting patients and their families during end-of-life care.

The school is collaborating with the university's theater department, bringing in actors to work with nursing students to create realistic end-of-life scenarios, according to UAH.

Previously, nursing students worked with a high-fidelity "human patient simulator" in a mock-up of a hospital room with instructors and their aides playing the parts of family members, while administrators observed behind a one-way mirror and then gave feedback. But it was missing a real-life component, according to Maria Steele, clinical assistant professor of nursing, who decided to get the theater department involved and create scenarios that may be uncomfortable for nurses.

Seven theater students play the parts of dying patients' families and the nursing students receive a basic briefing about what to expect. The nursing students have to rely on their own assessment and critical thinking skills and decide how to handle the situation with the patient and the family, Steele said in the UAH announcement. 

Nurses are uniquely positioned to play a key role in palliative and end-of-life care because they have the most interaction with patients and their families and they are often the most intimately acquainted with each patient's history and condition. Preparing them for the emotionally charged and difficult scenes at the end of life can help them become better, more sensitive and empathic caregivers.

"(Y)ou can you say so many things as a nurse that can be damaging to the family and impede their ability to have peace at the end," Steele said. "I hope this experience enables the students to become the family's advocate instead, by knowing what to do and say and--just as important--what not to do in an end-of-life situation."

To learn more:
- read the UAH announcement

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