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New nurse-led research to improve bereavement care in ICU

Alysia Coventry
Photo: New nurse-led research to improve bereavement care in ICU
A new Graduate Research Studentship focused on enhancing palliative care has been awarded to PhD Candidate Alysia Coventry.

The inaugural study grant was offered to Alysia by The Centre for Palliative Care and University of Melbourne’s Department of Nursing to pursue PhD research on improving bereavement support for families of patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Having worked as an ICU nurse for more than 20 years, she has seen first-hand the difficulties families face when a loved one dies in this setting, which has placed her in the ideal position to undertake research in this area. 

Bereavement within the intensive care unit is often sudden and unexpected and as a result, families are at increased risk of experiencing adverse psychological reactions to grief, Alysia explains.
“In ICU, the model of care is traditionally curative, but a family-centred model of care is recommended to guide the care of patients and their families before and after death in the ICU, as this can be quite traumatic.”

Alysia was among numerous PhD candidates vying for the prestigious three-year studentship that aims to broaden the scope of higher learning and research opportunities across palliative care in Australia.

Subsequent to receiving the studentship Alysia was offered a prestigious and highly competitive national scholarship based on her outstanding prior academic work and quality of her PhD proposal.

Peter Hudson, one of Alysia’s PhD supervisors and Director of The Centre for Palliative Care – part of St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne (SVHM) and a collaborative centre of the University of Melbourne – believes many families potentially suffer unnecessarily because the bereavement support throughout Australia is currently unsystematic.

He describes Alysia’s PhD topic as “a unique area of inquiry that will provide an important way forward in creating a novel model of care that improves end-of-life support within the ICU setting.

He also conveys the benefits this studentship presents for the future of nursing scholarship in palliative care.

“Nurses are typically the healthcare workers who spend the most time with patients and families, but there have been few opportunities to support nurses to build the evidence base of palliative care,” Prof Hudson says.

Investigating how best to support families during this challenging time, as well as identifying the barriers currently faced and collating strategies to improve delivery of care will form part of Alysia’s PhD work.

The aim is to develop an evidence-based model of bereavement care that is more family-centred and can be applied consistently across ICUs in Australia.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront how grieving in isolation heightens the levels of distress experienced by family carers during the bereavement period.

“A big part of the grieving process and end-of-life care involves family being able to see the care their loved one is receiving – to see the nurse touching the patient and talking to the patient – and with COVID restrictions, that was suddenly cut out of the equation because visitation was cut out,” Alysia says.

Through her PhD research Alysia will work closely with key stakeholders across a number of ICUs around Australia, as well as with family members who recently lost a loved one in ICU. She hopes her work will eventually be used to assist clinicians and healthcare groups provide targeted support for bereaved families of ICU patients. 

“I believe if you involve the people that are going to have to deliver the care, and have to believe in the care, the end result is more likely to be accepted,” Alysia says.

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