Are Our Busy Doctors and Nurses Losing Empathy for Patients?
Busy Doctor? Hurried Nurse?
If you've ever had loved ones in the hospital, you know it can be really tough to see them in such a fragile state. As it turns out, though, being by their side could prove to be a much better gift than balloons or flowers—and could actually save lives, finds recent research.
"Alarm fatigue," where hospital workers become desensitized to constantly dinging medical alarms, is a real thing—and it claims the lives of dozens of people each year, according to an analysis by The Joint Commission, a hospital-accrediting group. In the ICU, nurses sometimes become immune to the warnings from machines that monitor everything from oxygen levels to heart rate.
"Nurses are dealing with patient overload and are often multi-tasking while taking care of very sick patients," says Martine Ehrenclou, MA, patient advocate and author of The Take-Charge Patient: How You Can Get The Best Medical Care. "It’s not that your loved one isn’t a priority, but in states where there is no nurse-to-patient ratio law, nurses can be taking care of an unsafe number of patients.” And that's why it's more important than ever to prepare yourself now to be someone's hospital advocate—or assign someone to be yours.
"When you consider that 195,000 people in the US are victims to preventable, fatal medical errors every year and subjected to at least one medical error in the hospital each day, you must be with a patient to monitor and oversee care," says Ehrenclou. For instance, if an alarm bell goes off while you're with a hospitalized loved one, you should go get a registered nurse to make sure it's not just a false alarm.
Here are six easy ways to advocate for a loved one in the hospital:
Get face time.Armed with a notebook and pen, make sure you're with the patient when the doctors do their rounds. This is sometimes your only opportunity of the day to ask the specialists questions. Be sure to document so you can refer to your notes later. "You’d be surprised how easy it is to forget complex medical information in a stressful environment," Ehrenclou says.
Stop medication errors.Medication mix-ups harm about 1.5 million people a year, according to the Institute of Medicine. Luckily, they're easy to prevent. Create a list of the patient's current medications, their dosages, and allergies to medications. Every time a nurse or doctor enters the room to administer medicine, ask them to tell you the patient’s name and the medicine, and check the list before any medications are given.
Become a hospital escort.Accompany your loved one any time they're transported from one area of the hospital to another for procedures or tests. "Medical errors tend to occur when patients are handed to new medical professionals," Ehrenclou says. "Go over the patient’s name, date of birth, and allergies to medications with each new medical professional."
Become Mr. Clean.Ask everyone who comes in contact with the patient, including doctors and nurses, to wash their hands before touching him. Although medical staff knows they should wash their hands, two-thirds do not, according to some studies. To prevent unnecessary infection, Ehrenclou said she's even heard of people hand writing notes that say "Please wash your hands before touching me," and hanging it on the wall above the bed or even as a "necklace" around a patient's neck.
The story matters, too. "If the patient [or advocate] gives a little personal detail about the patient's vulnerability to infection or about their lives, the medical provider is more apt to work with the patient and not feel irritated by the request," Ehrenclou says. Here are some ways to frame the request:
If you're a patient advocate, try one of these:
- "My dad had suffered with so many infections this year. I'm trying to keep him as healthy as possible. Would you mind washing your hands before you touch him?"
- "I've heard about C.diff and MRSA in the hospital. I know the staff is going the extra mile to prevent it, and I'd like to help—so if I ask you to wash your hands, know that it's just me trying to help and keep my husband as free as possible from hospital infections, and not me trying to tell you what to do."
If you're a hospital patient, try one of these:
- "Forgive me, but I'm worried about catching an infection. Would you please wash your hands before touching me?”
- "I know everyone is so busy here in the hospital. I'm sure you've washed your hands already, but since I'm so susceptible to infection, I just want to make sure. Would you please wash your hands?"
Establish a safety net.If the patient is a fall risk, make sure someone is with the patient at all times. (Falls are most likely to happen when a patient tries to get out of bed while sedated, when recovering from a surgery, or if they're cognitively impaired, Ehrenclou says.) For times you can't be with your loved one, she recommends hiring a sitter, a trained medical professional sometimes available through the hospital. LVNs and orderlies are also sometimes available to give a hand. Don't be afraid to ask.
Humanize the situation.Establish a relationship with the patient’s primary nurse, the RN, Ehrenclou recommends. "This professional is the patient’s lifeline and you want him or her to see your loved one as a human being and not as the 'shoulder surgery in room 209,' ” she says. "Express appreciation to the nurse for all her good care of the patient. This will pay off with increased attention to the patient, and it’s also a nice thing to do.
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