As reported to Chris Pirschel by Lorraine Drapek, DNP, FNP-BC, AOCNP® 

Nurse practitioners provide quality and value in radiation oncology clinics. By managing the effects of radiation during and after treatment, as well as following patients into survivorship, nurse practitioners are continually improving the quality of care that patients receive during and following treatment.

How Do Nurse Practitioners Support Patients With Cancer During Radiation?
ONS member Lorraine Drapek, DNP, FNP-BC, AOCNP®, is a radiation oncology nurse practitioner at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, MA.

Independent follow-up care is a cornerstone for nurse practitioners in radiation oncology, ensuring patients are recovering and moving forward according to their treatment plan. Radiation nurse practitioners are capable of ordering tests, scans, and labs, and unless a significant patient change requires input from radiation oncologists, nurse practitioners are managing the plan of care for their patients.

As a relatively new role in radiation departments, nurse practitioners have a unique set of responsibilities that evolve over time. The scope of practice is regularly growing practice as the needs of patients receiving radiation therapy continue to change.

For instance, patients were reporting issues related to pelvic radiation and sexual health. As part of a doctor of nursing practice capstone project, I created a sexual health clinic that helps address patients’ sexual health needs prior to, during, and following pelvic radiation. The program fills an important area by educating patients about the potential effects of their treatments, what can be done to prevent or minimize issues, and what the oncology team is trying to do to help. Focusing on sexual health, quality of life, and interventions to prevent long-term problems has enabled us to meet important patient needs. Nurse practitioners are working to proactively address these kinds of issues in radiation oncology.

Because nurse practitioners are fulfilling several different needs in radiation oncology, challenges can arise when defining the role for other healthcare providers. It’s crucial to constantly teach providers about the scope of practice for nurse practitioners, informing them about how we can make their practice more efficient, provide care and improve quality, offer preventive resources, and ultimately follow up with patients. When nurse practitioners are free to follow up with patients, radiation oncologists can efficiently focus on seeing new patients.

Nurse practitioner roles can vary depending on disease site and location and whether they’re working in a community setting or an academic institution. Creating a generally defined scope of practice for radiation oncology nurse practitioners could go a long way to educating healthcare providers about the role while also leaving them with room to grow and adapt to individual patient needs.

Although the role of nurse practitioners in radiation oncology is still relatively new, it has plenty of opportunities to expand and evolve. By practicing to the full scope of the role, nurse practitioners offer countless benefits to patients and their radiation colleagues. As advanced practice providers, whether it’s through research opportunities, quality improvement projects, or other avenues of advancement, radiation oncology nurse practitioners are finding new and critical ways to grow their role and improve radiation oncology practice for patients with cancer.