Faculty members at the University of Louisville School of Medicine are developing a national training program for educators at universities across the United States how to teach interprofessional palliative care to those who care for cancer patients.

Palliative care is care given to improve the quality of life of patients who have a serious or life-threatening disease, such as cancer. Given in a team approach, according to the National Cancer Institute, the goal of palliative care is to prevent or treat, as early as possible, the symptoms and side effects of the disease and its treatment, in addition to the related psychological, social, and spiritual problems.

It requires patient-centered care from physicians, nurses, social workers and others to meet the complex needs of cancer patients. However, many institutions instruct health professional students in palliative care within each discipline, known as silos, rather than as an interprofessional team.

Now, the UofL is building on its successful interprofessional program used in education for palliative to develop a curriculum for other universities funded by a $1.4 million award over five years from the National Cancer Institute (NCI). UofL’s Interdisciplinary Curriculum in Oncology Palliative Care Education (iCOPE) was beginning in 2010 with support from a grant from the NCI. More than 1,500 students in social work, medicine, nursing and chaplaincy at UofL have completed the training, which remains a required curricular component.

“This is a first-of-its-kind program and we are fortunate to have an experienced team here as well as the continued support of the National Cancer Institute,” said Mark Pfeifer, M.D., the V.V. Cooke Chair and professor in the UofL Department of Medicine. “People diagnosed with cancer are best served by teams of professionals working together to provide patient-centered care.”

Through webinars, on-line training modules, a workshop, and mentoring through video conferences and one-on-one contact, UofL faculty will instruct 160 health educators from 35-50 other institutions over 10 months in developing curricula to teach oncology palliative care and teamwork to students across health disciplines. The program will include four-months of work at the home institution and a 2 ½-day face-to-face workshop, followed by six months of mentoring. Recruitment for learners in the program is expected to begin in early fall.

Faculty trained in this program will be able to overcome the effects of training in silos – within each discipline – and reinforce their students’ interprofessional skills by helping them understand the strengths, capabilities, skills, roles and cultures of the other professionals and instruct them in communication and collaboration among the team members.

“The new project includes evaluation of the home institution’s strengths and weaknesses to take on interprofessional education in oncology and faculty development, which will enable them to overcome barriers and successfully implement programs designed for their institutions,” said Barbara Head, Ph.D., associate professor in the UofL Department of Medicine.

UofL’s experienced interdisciplinary faculty, under the leadership of Pfeifer and Head, will serve as the core instructional team, guided by a committee of national experts and internal advisors. The iCOPE curriculum will be available to the trainees for use or modification as one approach to developing their own programs.

At the completion of the project, participating educators and others will be invited to a national summit on interdisciplinary palliative oncology education where they will share their experiences and present their own initiatives.