Are you interested in a medical career but not sure what you can specialise in? Perhaps being a Palliative Care
Doctor is the career for you!
We have gathered all of the insider information on what it means to be a palliative care doctor including what an ordinary day looks like, the future of this career, career prospects and so much more.
So what are you waiting for? Let’s jump right in!
Meet Dr Frank Brennan
Dr Frank Brennan is a palliative care physician based in Sydney. He works with a team that helps care for patients with cancer, kidney disease and motor neurone disease.
Frank currently works at Calvary Hospital in Kogarah and is a member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his service in palliative medicine and medical education.
Alongside his medical career, Frank has also written a series of stories drawn from his work that were broadcast on ABC Radio National.
How did you end up in this role?
Frank recalls being interested in medicine from a young age after experiencing a very emotional death in his family.
He says, “As I did medicine, palliative care was only starting to develop. As it began to be taught I got curious about the field and started training in the specialisation.”
Studies and Experience
Frank studied a postgraduate degree in medicine at university before later specialising in palliative care.
To be a palliative care physician you must first complete a postgraduate medical degree. Graduates will then usually do a few years as a junior doctor.
There are two routes to specialising in palliative care:
- Physician training with special exams, followed by advanced training OR
- Working in another discipline like general practitioning, followed by three years of advanced training
You can find out more about specialist physician training requirements in Australia here.
Image sourced from The Royal Australasian College of Physicians
What made you want to work in this industry?
“My story goes right back to my teenage years. When I was thirteen years old my brother Tom, who was only eleven years old, died of bone cancer. There were only three months between his diagnosis and his death,” Frank shares.
“For me, witnessing how quickly things changed for Tom, the care he received and also the effect that his death had on my parents [led me to my career]. Obviously this was a very sad time and a time for grief, but also I started thinking about what a doctor could do and what is the role of a doctor. That was really the origin of me beginning to think of doing medicine.”
What is a Palliative Care Doctor?
A palliative care doctor’s main role is “caring for a patient and their family where the patient has a serious illness which will probably lead to their death,” Frank says.
Largely, palliative care physicians will be caring for patients with cancer, significant heart, lung or kidney disease, or motor neurone disease.
Frank’s job is to help the patient and their family in providing physical comfort as well as addressing the emotional and spiritual dimensions of dying.
Palliative care physicians work as a team with nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians, social workers and pastoral care workers to look at how the people are feeling and how they are experiencing things.
Roles and Responsibilities
During a typical day, a palliative care physician will visit each of their patients in hospital or a hospice and check on how they are feeling and going. They will also check in with the family to see if they have any concerns about what is unfolding and ensure that they are also looking after themselves and their physical and mental health.
A palliative care doctor is responsible for seeing people in a clinic who are experiencing pain or nausea. They also visit people in their own homes to make sure things are going okay and to address any significant issues.
Frank finds visiting people in their own home very fulfilling, as he is able to fully support these patients in what is, to them, a comfortable and familiar setting.
Which industries can this career be found in?
Palliative care doctors work in the health care and social assistance industry.
Research is another aspect of palliative care that is rapidly changing and developing overtime.
What jobs do people sometimes confuse this with?
Although palliative care is not often confused with other jobs, it is a widely held misconception that palliative care is only for people who are dying of cancer.
Palliative care can in fact benefit any patient from the time of diagnosis of any life-shortening illness.
Characteristics and Qualities
Frank says that the main skills you will need in a career as a palliative care doctor are as follows:
|A broad sense of the human being||Frank says, “As doctors we’re very trained about the physical aspects of the human body, but in palliative care our perspective becomes very broad in terms of not only physically how the person is, but also emotionally and spiritually how they’re feeling.”|
|A high focus on comfort||High level skills dealing with symptoms like pain, nausea and shortness of breath.|
|Excellence of communication||Being able to sit with people who are upset, distressed or grieving and being able to listen to them and care for them.|
|Caring for a dying person||Knowing what to do when a patient is dying and being very attentive to the aspects of death.|
|Empathy||Having a deep understanding of the patient and their family in what they are going through in order to provide the best possible care.|
“People say to me, this must be very difficult work to do day by day, and it is and it would truly be very difficult if I was witnessing suffering over and over again without being able to do anything about it… the essence of our work brings us to a sense of professional contribution, knowing that we’re helping people helps us a lot and so does knowing that we are helping the patient and their family,” says Frank.
Steps to Becoming a Palliative Care Doctor
What should you study?
As mentioned earlier, after completing a postgraduate medical degree there are two routes that lead to specialising in palliative care.
There are a few undergraduate medical programs that you can apply for straight after high school, including:
Click here to find out more about the undergraduate and postgraduate pathways to get into medicine.
Being a palliative care doctor requires a high level of medical skill but also very well-developed interpersonal skills that tend to come from one’s own life experiences.
Frank admits that you must be a certain kind of person to have a successful career in palliative care.
How long does it take to become a Palliative Care Doctor?
After completing a four to six year medical degree, prospective palliative care physicians must complete three years of full-time training under the supervision of a palliative medicine doctor.
It can certainly take a while before you are recognised as a certified palliative care physician!
Find out more about training pathways for palliative care doctors here.
What will this career look like in the future?
Like most areas of medicine, palliative care is an interesting field to work in as research is constantly developing.
How in-demand is this career?
According to Job Outlook, palliative care is a part of Australia’s largest and fastest growing industry.
Requiring a very high skill set, doctors who specialise in palliative care are always in high demand, and needed to help patients struggling with life-shortening illnesses.
|Salary||Future Growth||Skill Level Rating|
|$258,000+||Moderate over the next 5 years||Very high skill|
According to the NSW government, there are six universal principles to palliative care, which we have summarised below:
- Principle 1: Care is patient, family and carer centred
- Principle 2: Care provided is based on assessed need
- Principle 3: Patients, families and carers have access to local and networked services to meet their needs
- Principle 4: Care is evidence-based, clinically and culturally safe and effective
- Principle 5: Care is integrated and coordinated
- Principle 6: Care is equitable
To find out more about the six principles of palliative care click here.
The Future of this Industry
Frank believes that the palliative care industry is expanding in quite a few ways. He says that historically, palliative care was devoted to cancer patients but is now rapidly unfolding to include other life-shortening illnesses like motor neurone disease.
He also believes that there is lots of scope for developing palliative care internationally, particularly in third world countries and where humanitarian disasters have occurred. He says that the palliative care industry encourages this new focus and area of interest.
Best Thing & Worst Thing
What do you enjoy most about this job?
Frank says that it is very rewarding for him to be able to make a big difference in the lives of dying patients.
He says that it is meaningful to witness the very tender moments between patients and their family, and that, “witnessing the grace of people in the midst of very trying circumstances, and witnessing that very closely, is a great privilege.”
What do you feel is the toughest part of this job?
Frank admits that the toughest aspects of his work are with young people as they have barely started their lives.
He finds it especially difficult when young people have small children themselves, who may not remember their mother or father. In these situations, Frank and his team would encourage that person to keep memory boxes or write letters for their children to be read at big life events, as a way of maintaining that connection with them.
Advice for Aspiring Palliative Care Doctors
What do you wish you had known before you started working in this career?
“I would have liked to have known that you don’t need to be completely perfect in the beginning, that you can mature and understand better as time goes on,” Frank reflects.
He encourages prospective palliative care doctors to be more gentle with themselves, and look to their team for support. He also stresses the importance of self-care, time off and having interests outside of work.
Why should people consider taking on this career?
Frank recommends students to keep an open mind in terms of what they might like to do as a career and to always pursue their interests or passions.
He says that specialising in palliative medicine is a particularly rewarding career path for a physician but emphasises that palliative care is “certainly not for everyone.”
Palliative care doctors work usual hours, typically from 8am to 5pm, with the palliative care team taking turns being on call with nursing staff to provide advice on patients experiencing difficulties.
Frank says that annual leave is encouraged and that it is important in this line of work to have time for yourself and have breaks where needed.
What is the workplace culture like?
The workplace culture experienced by palliative care doctors is excellent.
Frank says that as a team, palliative care workers are aware of the stressful aspects of their work and provide plenty of support to one another through humour and gathering socially outside of work as well.
Outside of the team, no one else quite knows what being a palliative care doctor entails, so it is important to have an established network and connection within the team.
Kellie Maloney is a driven and passionate writer who likes to flex her creative muscle on the daily. Currently, she also works as a Junior Content Writer at ClassBento, a rapidly growing startup that she is super proud to be a part of. When she is not writing for ClassBento or Art of Smart Education, Kellie can be found writing trashy poetry, cooking (barely) edible food or watching YouTube videos.