As chronic illness patients, we spend a lot of time with medical professionals and support staff. We know the impact these care providers can have in our vulnerable moments. No act of kindness goes unnoticed.
This week is Nurses’ Professional Development Week! For nurses, like any other supporting role, it can be tough to know what is best for complex patients. After chatting with some Friends in the Fight, here are some tips for nurses hoping to make a positive impact:
1. Accept the whole person
As patients, we have to be vulnerable with so much of our selves — not just our symptoms! Our intersectional identities will be part of our medical care. Too many patients end up feeling marginalized by medical professionals for their race, gender identity, body shape, socioeconomic status…
If you want to truly support your patient, show them that you accept them from all angles! Become comfortable with diverse people and consider attending trainings on topics like cultural competency and implicit bias.
2. Simple check-ins
I will always remember being the only 19-year-old in the colonoscopy wing. Thanks to my undiagnosed connective tissue disorder, the IV fluid was pooling in my hand, I was weak and dizzy, but mostly I was terrified. The doctor was running late, so I had been sitting on my gurney for an hour, with no idea what was going on. In those moments, simply having someone stop in to say hello and ask if you’re doing ok can make all the difference. Even if you don’t have any other way to help, you can have a tremendous impact by helping the patient feel noticed, that there’s someone out there looking out for them.
3. Do your research and adapt to their needs
For nurses who will be caring for a patient for more than just a few minutes, take some time to learn about them! What symptoms do they have? What are their particular needs? If they have a diagnosis, look it up and make sure you know what to look out for. It will help you connect and, therefore, help them to trust you if you clearly know something about their condition. More than this, there may be specific triggers that you can be on the lookout for. If a patient is sensitive to strong smells, be respectful and make sure to not wear perfume. Or there may be specific ways to help. For example, if a patient has cognitive dysfunction, offering a printout with images before going over scheduling or medical updates can help them process the information and not feel overwhelmed or ashamed at not being able to follow.
Researching can also mean asking questions with the intent of being better able to support. This could be as simple as asking whether they are an introvert or extrovert; friendly chit chat can be a great way to make a patient feel at ease — unless they are introverted and need quiet time to recharge!
4. Share your own tips
While it is important to research, remember that you are also a source of information! Feel free to offer ideas you’ve picked up from other patients you’ve cared for. Be sure to present the information as a possible option to try, rather than a definitive fix, but hearing someone’s experience and tricks adds to the feeling of being cared about and supported. Sharing occasional success stories can also bring hope in low moments.
5. Act as a sounding board — help us feel heard!
Doctors are under so much pressure these days, we’re lucky to see one for more than 20 minutes. For complex, chronic conditions, that is simply not enough time to be heard. Sometimes we just need someone to witness our experience. Lend an ear for a few minutes if a patient needs to share their story.
You can also take it up a notch by helping communicate with the doctor. Due to medical PTSD, many patients experience anxiety around doctors, especially if they feel pressed for time. You can act as a sounding board before the doctor comes in — ask the patient if they have any questions, concerns, or ideas that they’d like to process before talking to the doctor. This may help the patient feel more confident and communicate with more clarity later on. If you have extended experience with a patient who feels the communication isn’t going well, consider advocating to the doctor. They likely just didn’t have enough time with the patient to fully grasp the situation or form a trusting relationship. As such, you might be able to provide valuable insight!