Objectives: The aim of this review is to construct a detailed account of the role of the district nurse (generalist registered nurse providing nursing care in primarily home settings) in providing palliative care, to determine if and how district nursing care provides effective care to such patients at home, and to examine the utility of a realist review for the above purpose.
Design: Realist review of literature.
Data sources: Papers in English reporting aspects of the district nurse role in the provision of palliative care are included. Electronic databases (Ovid Medline, Cinnahl, British Nursing Index, Embase, PsycINFO and EBM reviews) were searched, supplemented by citation tracking and grey literature searches.
Review methods: Assumptions about district nursing practice with palliative care patients are derived from a range of sources. Reviewed papers are interrogated to support, refute or develop these statements.
Results: Forty six papers employing a range of research methods are incorporated into the review. Studies focus on district nurses, patients, family carers and other professionals and include work from a range of countries. Studies highlight the value district nurses place on palliative care provision, the importance of developing a relationship with patients, and the emotional difficulties of providing such care. District nurses have key skills in providing physical care and in coordinating the work of others, but struggle more with psychological aspects of care. District nurses report feeling undervalued, and express some reluctance to work with other health and social care professionals to provide care.
Conclusions: There is little in this synthesis to shed light on the outcomes of care or to explicitly guide practice. District nurses clearly articulate what they consider to be important, but research in this area is limited and needs to undergo a renaissance to examine what is important: namely what district nurses do in practice; what patients and family carers' views are on what they do and do not do; and how district nurses can improve care outcomes. The inclusiveness of realist review works well for this field of study.
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