Promoting Excellence : Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner Program

New York University, Division of Nursing
New York, New York

Deborah Witt Sherman,
PhD, APRN, ANP, BC, FAAN

Deborah Witt Sherman Deborah Witt Sherman coordinates the first palliative care nurse practitioner program in the country. New York University’s master’s program and post-master’s certificate program prepare nurse practitioners to provide comprehensive and compassionate care to individuals and families who are living with or dying from an incurable, progressive illness.

Building on a Solid Core
The palliative care curriculum builds upon the core of the master’s program in nursing, which focuses on theory, research, critical thinking, knowledge development, health care policy and leadership. In addition to advanced science courses in pathophysiology, pharmacotherapeutics and advanced physical assessment, students take role development courses and five specialized palliative care courses, totaling 710 precepted clinical hours. Palliative care course topics include loss, grief, death and bereavement; management of pain and suffering; end-of-life care; symptom management; and nursing leadership in palliative care.

The program also builds upon a common trait of nurses—a deeply rooted humanitarian concern. “Our program allows nurses to acknowledge their human compassion as well as their expert knowledge and advanced practice skills in palliative nursing.” Sherman explains. “This quality is what makes the program a very different experience.”

Each student receives both inpatient hospital and hospice palliative care experience. Students select where they receive this experience from a list of clinical sites that meet the student’s educational goals.

Sherman collects evaluation data at the end of each semester from each of her students. Students evaluate their courses, faculty, preceptors and clinical sites. Program preceptors also evaluate the curriculum and their students. This information is used to strengthen the curriculum and to identify program and course competencies. Since the inception of the master’s program in the fall of 1998, 15 students have graduated and are demonstrating nursing leadership in palliative care. Currently there are 34 master’s and postmaster’s students in the program.

Making a Difference
As a member of the nursing faculty for a newly funded interdisciplinary palliative care fellowship program at the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx, Sherman and her colleagues are developing an interdisciplinary palliative care curriculum for physicians and a master’s-prepared curriculum for nurses and social workers. These interdisciplinary initiatives emphasize the value of collaborative practice in ensuring quality palliative care.

“As a cutting-edge specialty,” Sherman notes, “palliative care is well-suited for the advanced practice nurse who wants to make a difference in the lives of patients and families who are living with and dying from incurable, progressive illness. It is an incredible opportunity to care for individuals at a very critical time in their lives, a time when they are extremely vulnerable and need expert nursing care. Advanced practice nurses,” she continues, “can assist patients and families in achieving growth, well-being and quality of life throughout the illness trajectory, even as death approaches.”

Sherman believes that New York University’s advanced practice program in palliative care nursing can be emulated and, in fact, must be if palliative care is going to be recognized as a nursing specialty by state boards of nursing. She encourages other graduate programs in nursing to consider developing a palliative care master’s program, a post-master’s certificate program in palliative care and/or a dual concentration for students in adult nurse practitioner or geriatric nurse practitioner programs.

Personal Reflection
Sherman herself continues to follow her calling. She advises aspiring students: “Follow your heart. The answer is inside you. If you are always drawn to people with incurable illness and feel compelled to offer them support, that’s a message. Listen to what your heart is saying.”


Promoting Excellence in End-of-Life Care was a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation dedicated to long-term changes in health care institutions to substantially improve care for dying persons and their families. Visit PromotingExcellence.org for more resources.

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