“As an oncology nurse who grew up to be a palliative care nurse provider,” Heather Coats had her feet firmly planted in two worlds – oncology and hospice. Flitting back and forth between the two for years, “Nothing truly fit until I discovered palliative care,” said CU Nursing’s Assistant Professor Coats, PhD, MS, APRN-BC.
Ten years ago when she earned her Palliative Care Graduate Certificate from the University of Colorado College of Nursing, there was no bridge between the active treatment model and hospice. Patients were either cured, receiving treatment, or terminal and in hospice.
“Working in the oncology field, I had years of PTSD from the phrase ‘There’s nothing else we can do for you. Go home and we’ll set you up with hospice.’ It was so debilitating,” said Coats. “I knew there was something more and that it could be provided with continued active treatment for someone’s serious illness.” That “something more” proved to be palliative care (PC), which sits in a unique space providing holistic approach to care to patients -- and their caregivers -- living with serious illness.
Desperately trying to provide a holistic approach to cancer care and to pull in the hospice philosophy, Coats acknowledges, “In our limited way, we were providing a form of palliative care. We just didn’t have a name then.”
Similar to the lack of a holistic program for patients, there really were no palliative care nurse practice programs either. “They had to be pieced together,” said Coats.
At the time, Coats was enrolled in the College’s Adult Nurse Practitioner program. “I knew from my experiences as an oncology RN that I wanted to focus my training in palliative care,” she said. However, the structure of the curriculum did not allow that type of focus. So she made a personal decision to take the two palliative care certificate courses in addition to the regular coursework. “I was lucky that these courses were available because at that time there were very few PC-specific courses for nursing.”
For Coats, the two palliative care courses were the beginning. The curriculum, coupled with clinical time with an inpatient Palliative Care Advanced Practice Provider and the seven board certified Palliative Care physicians during her program, provided her with an excellent foundation.
Coats credits the courses she took while earning her certificate with being able to provide a voice for this vulnerable population. “The courses provide you with standard palliative care language. You become more grounded in palliative care principles.” According to Coats, “A lot of oncology nurses are already providing palliative care to their patients – they just don’t have a term for it. Courses like this put words to what they may or may not be doing.” The post-graduate certificate consists of three courses and can be completed in less than one year.
“This isn’t anesthesiology. We are not a moneymaker for systems. But we provide high quality, high-value care to patients and their families,” said Coats. Likening palliative care to creating excellent customer relationships, “We provide the customer experience that makes patients say, ‘I want to go back…’”
“I truly believe I would not be where I am today without CU Nursing’s Palliative Care Certificate program and the clinical time that I spent with inpatient Palliative Care teams,” said Coats.
Today, Coats wears two hats as an assistant professor at CU College of Nursing and as the director of research for the Hospice Palliative Nursing Association (HPNA Established in 1986, HPNA has more than 10,500 members and 50 chapters nationwide representing the specialty of hospital and palliative nursing. Supporting the profession through education programs, research initiatives, and advocacy, HPNA’s goal is to advance expert care in serious illness.