Death and Dying Series Equips Professionals with Strategies for Improving Conversation Skills

Nancy Zionts addresses the second cohort of the Death and Dying Series for Healthcare Professionals.

The Jewish Healthcare Foundation (JHF) completed its second Death and Dying Series for Healthcare Professionals on November 13. This program, inspired by the popular Death and Dying Fellowship for graduate students, was designed to enhance the serious illness communication skills of healthcare professionals who are already in practice. Through six virtual sessions, 22 professionals from a range of healthcare disciplines learned techniques for having more effective conversations around end-of-life topics with patients and families.

Led by JHF Chief Operating Officer and Chief Program Officer Nancy Zionts, MBA, JHF Medical Advisor Judy Black, MD, MHA, Senior Communications and Program Specialist Lisa George, MPH, CHES, and Nurse Project Manager Maureen Saxon-Gioia, MS HSA, RN, sessions were structured around having advance care planning conversations, strategies for effective conversations around POLST and CPR, respecting the individual throughout the serious illness experience, end-of-life decision making, and challenges at the end of life.

The series culminated with an opportunity for participants to practice serious illness conversations in small breakout groups. Participants engaged in case-based role-play involving POLST conversations and ethics scenarios. The virtual format provided a supportive environment in which to explore the challenge associated with having these types of conversations within their professional practice. Breakout sessions were facilitated by experts in the field, including Michael Barkowski, DO, MA, physician, Division of Supportive Care/Palliative Care, Allegheny General Hospital and Wexford Hospital, Allegheny Health Network; Justin Engleka, GNP-BC, ACHPN, senior program manager, Palliative Care, Highmark Health; Vaseffa Fennick, LCSW, behavioral health clinical manager, Highmark ECCM, and Emily Jaffe, MD, MBA, VP and executive medical director, Enterprise Palliative Care Strategy and Implementation, Highmark Health. Judith Black, MD, MHA, JHF medical advisor, and Fredric Price, MD, retired OB/GYN, cancer surgeon, and board-certified palliative care specialist, also contributed to the discussions. Facilitators provided feedback regarding elements of the conversations that were effective and offered suggestions for how to improve and enhance their conversation skillset.

After completion of the case-based role play, participants and facilitators reconvened to discuss the challenges and opportunities that end-of-life conversations provide and the tools that make these conversations easier and more effective. Participants reflected on how this series will impact their work moving forward and the value of programs like this to support professionals in doing this important work.

As one participant noted, "I'm grateful to see that there is a big support network and system that is being proactive and involved with patients who are facing death. It's uncomfortable, but a necessary part of death and dying."

Applications are now being accepted for the 2024 JHF Death and Dying Fellowship for graduate students, which begins in January. For more information and to apply, visit here. The application deadline is December 14.

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