The need for onco nurses

The oncology nurse acts as a catalyst between the patient, the physician, other medical professionals, and the family

Onco nurses also provide psychological support by listening to the patient, assessing their understanding of the disease and its process as well as the patient’s emotional state
Onco nurses also provide psychological support by listening to the patient, assessing their understanding of the disease and its process as well as the patient’s emotional state

Nurses form the largest segment of the healthcare workforce practice in nearly every setting of the system, including hospitals, long-term care, home health, ambulatory care, diagnostic and treatment facilities, and clinics. Nurses serving in the oncology specialty are termed as ‘onco-nurses’. They are registered nurses who care for critically or chronically-ill cancer patients.

According to the Indian Nursing Council (INC) records, there are around 30.4 lakh nursing personnel registered in the country. Assuming 60% availability in the case of registered nurses, it is estimated that around 20 lakh nursing personnel are available for active services, which gives a nurse-population ratio of about 1:675 against WHO norms 3:1000 (population is taken as 135 crores), indicating the transformative change in the Indian healthcare system.

Specialised to serve cancer patients

Oncology is a specialty where the therapy is a long term approach, holistic and comprehensive, with close attention towards the overall health of the patient. The onco-nurses must be prepared to work with patients who have been diagnosed with life-threatening conditions. These nurses work in specialties such as hematology, radiation therapy, surgical oncology, medical oncology, bone marrow transplant centres, and palliative care. The specialty areas have expanded further into biotherapy, breast oncology, gynecologic oncology, head and neck oncology, and cancer genetic counseling.

Onco nurses also provide psychological support by listening to the patient, assessing their understanding of the disease and its process as well as the patient’s emotional state. Research and innovations in the field of oncology are vast and thereby the approach to treatment also keeps changing with lots of recent advancements. Hence the nurses have to be specially trained and adequately equipped to cater to not just the physical but also the psychological and emotional needs of both the patient and the family.

Training of the onco-nurses

Nursing services are a vital component for a healthcare organisation to be successful in inpatient care. The hospital holds the strength of approximately 60% of the nurses as specialised onco nurses across its cancer centres in India. The organisation provides training and development to the nurses, through spectra of novel pedagogy which includes a variety of teaching modules like skill-based training programmes under which PICC (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter) line training and Hospital Infection Control certification programmes are conducted. Fellowship programmes, post basic-diploma in oncology, nursing leadership programme are also conducted to keep the nurses updated with recent trends and advancements.

Role of nurses in the oncology specialty

The role of the oncology nurse is more than just clinical practices. They are prepared to treat patients holistically and suggest a variety of strategies to help patients cope with cancer and treatment procedures. A structured competency assessment checklist, validated by specialists in the field of oncology is used to assess the knowledge and the clinical competency of onco nurses. Areas of evaluation are chemotherapy administration, management of PICC line, chemo port management, haematology, palliative care and hospice care, etc. Several patients also need special individual plans made for their treatment, diet, and general health and it is up to the nurse to draw up these plans. The nurses are duly certified, post achieving the credentialing and privileging for the various oncology-related procedures.

Cancer patients experience a great deal of psycho-social distress and may feel vulnerable many times. The diagnosis just does not affect the individual but also their loved ones who put their trust into the hands of the oncologists and nurses at the hospital. In such a scenario, the oncology nurse acts as a catalyst between the patient, the physician, other medical professionals, and the family. They share compassion for patients and families, often forming meaningful relationships that extend long after treatment is completed.

Why India need more onco nurses?

In developed countries, oncology nursing is seen as an area of specialisation. India is a densely populated, developing country, with the majority of the segment below the poverty line, coming from rural areas, has more need for specialised nurses to address the constantly increasing cancer problem which is reaching mammoth numbers. India has a huge challenge to combat the disproportionate number of healthcare workers to the population. All this put together substantiates the fact that the country’s need for the hour in healthcare is to have specialist nurses in the field of oncology who would be able to address the situation from the grass-root level in a comprehensive manner covering not only the primordial but also the primary, secondary as well as tertiary levels of cancer care inclusive of palliative, hospice, and end of life support.

The article is authored by Punitha Singh, Associate Vice President - Nursing at HealthCare Global.