Oncology nurses are in the perfect position to implement ideal care for their patients via the use of the family meeting in palliative and end-of-life care. This type of meeting provides an opportunity to coordinate the responsibilities of caregivers and clinicians with patient needs, according to a study by Myra Glajchen, DSW, director of medical education, MJHS Institute for Innovation in Palliative Care, New York, and Anna Goehring, MD, palliative care physician, MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care, New York.1

Oncology nurses usually spend more time with patients than other staff and are able to answer patients’ questions about their medical conditions and discuss end-of-life issues with patients when they are ready to do so. They are also in a good position to evaluate caregivers’ condition and determine how involved caregivers want to be in helping patients make crucial decisions. These decisions are often difficult, yet Ms Glajchen and Dr Goehring write that end-of-life communication skills are not emphasized in the nursing literature.1 They note that the role of the oncology nurse in family meetings is not clear and that there has been little guidance on evaluating and managing caregiver distress.

Family caregivers have their own obligations but often bear heavy, difficult caregiving responsibilities in addition to handling their own personal concerns. Nurses can evaluate the extent to which their caregiving burdens go beyond their skills to cope and provide what their ill family member needs. Oncology nurses also are responsible for assessing the strength of the relationship between patients and their caregivers. A satisfying relationship correlates with a better commitment on the part of the caregiver, although this must be balanced with other activities to avoid caregiving becoming fraught and burdensome.

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There must also be a balance with other family members; the researchers stress that a diagnosis of cancer for one family member affects the entire family. Caregivers for patients who are being actively treated for disease are in better physical and emotional health than caregivers for patients receiving palliative and end-of-life care. Oncology nurses should use family meetings to evaluate and structure caregiving situations for patients, caregivers, and their families.