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A Melbourne-based nurse researcher has received backing to investigate improving bereavement support for families of patients who pass away in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

PhD Candidate Alysia Coventry, who worked as an ICU nurse for more than 20 years, has been awarded a new Graduate Research Studentship, which is focused on enhancing palliative care, by the Centre for Palliative Care and the University of Melbourne’s Department of Nursing.

The inaugural three-year studentship aims to broaden the scope of higher learning and research opportunities across palliative care in Australia.

Losing a loved one is never easy, but the level of sadness experienced in an ICU setting can often be more traumatic due to the sudden and unexpected nature of death, which puts families at an increased risk of experiencing negative psychological reactions to grief.

Alysia witnessed the impact first-hand and it motivated her to undertake PhD research in this area.

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

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

“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 ICU, as this can be quite traumatic,” Alysia explains.

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

Professor Hudson considers Alysia’s topic a unique level of inquiry that will pave the way for creating a new model of care that improves end-of-life support within the ICU setting.

He describes nurses as the healthcare workers at the forefront of 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,” Professor Hudson says.

Alysia says the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted 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-19 restrictions, that was suddenly cut out of the equation because visitation was cut out,” Alysia says.

Through the PhD research, Alysia will work closely with key stakeholders across a number of ICUs across Australia, as well as connect with family members who have recently lost a loved one in ICU. She hopes her work will ultimately be used to help 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.”