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DiversityNursing Blog

Lost in Clinical Translation

Posted by Alycia Sullivan

Wed, Mar 05, 2014 @ 11:01 AM

A classic “Far Side” cartoon shows a man talking forcefully to his dog. The man says: “Okay, Ginger! I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage!” But the dog hears only: “Blah blah Ginger blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Ginger …”

As a nurse, I often worry that patients’ comprehension of doctors and nurses is equally limited — except what the patient hears from us is: “Blah blah blah Heart Attack blah blah blah Cancer.”

I first witnessed one of these lost-in-translation moments as a nursing student. My patient, a single woman, a flight attendant in her early 30s, had developed chest pain and severe shortness of breath during the final leg of a flight. She thought she was having a heart attack, but it turned out to be a pulmonary embolism: a blood clot in the lungs. Treatment required several days in the hospital. Already far from home and alone, she was very worried that a clotting problem would mean she could no longer fly.

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When the medical team came to her room, they discussed her situation in detail: the problem itself, the necessary course of anti-coagulation treatment and the required blood tests that went with it. To me, just at the start of my nursing education, the explanations were clear and easy to follow, and I felt hopeful they would give my patient some comfort.

After the rounding team left, though, she turned a stricken face to me and deadpanned, “Well, that was clear as mud, wasn’t it?”

I sat down and clarified as best I could. But until then, I hadn’t realized what a huge comprehension gap often exists between what we in health care say to patients and what those patients actually understand.

A growing body of literature suggests that these clinical miscommunications matter, because the success of physician-patient interaction has a real effect on patients’ health.

In a 2005 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Eric B. Larson and Xin Yao, researchers at the University of Washington, claim that treatment outcomes are better when doctors show more empathy and take the time to make sure patients understand what’s going on.

I saw the importance of caring communication during a friend’s recent heart attack scare. He had a lingering case of bronchitis, and one morning found himself struggling for air. He had pain in his shoulders, back and neck and a feeling of increasing constriction in his chest.

Concerned, his wife took him to the emergency room, where his breathing became even more labored. In the triage area he began sweating profusely and then collapsed. A rapid response team rushed in, put him on oxygen, started an IV, got an EKG. His wife thought she was watching, helplessly, as her husband of more than 20 years died in front of her.

Minutes passed and the code team revived him, but no one told her that he’d passed out because of a protective effect of his autonomic nervous system, not because his life was threatened. No one fully explained that to him, either.

At that point his wife called me, and knowing how confusing modern health care can be, I went to the hospital to help. I caught up with them in the cardiac catheterization lab, where the miscommunications continued. The cardiac cath showed that his arteries were clear — but the diagnosis, explained in technical terms, meant nothing to his wife. It took over 12 hours to learn that his echocardiogram revealed all cardiac structures to be normal. (Also, no one told the wife that her husband would stay overnight in the I.C.U. because protocol required it, not because he actually needed intensive care.)

Although my friend received exemplary care, neither he nor his wife felt that they had. Instead, similar to my patient in nursing school, they felt they had been hijacked to a foreign land. The hospital staff members were obviously dedicated to restoring patients’ health, but they and the work itself came across as alien, obtrusive and impossible to understand. Also, my friend’s problem was correctly diagnosed days later when he went to his primary care physician. Acid reflux was causing his pain; the cure was a prescription for Prilosec.

Interestingly, patients in hospitals report more satisfying interactions with physicians when doctors sit down during rounds instead of standing, according to a 2012 article co-written by the researcher Kelli J. Swayden, a nurse practitioner, in the journal Patient Education and Counseling. Sitting gives the message “I have time,” whereas doctors who stand communicate urgency and impatience.

I don’t mean to blame doctors and nurses; it can be very hard to force yourself to slow down and tune in to a patient’s wavelength when you have other patients and countless pressing tasks to get to.

And that’s especially true today, when hospitals are focused, machinelike, on volume and flow. Bedside manner does not increase efficiency, and it certainly can’t be charged for. Still: My friends had gone from blueberry pancakes at breakfast to worrying that the husband might die, and the closest anyone got to assuaging that fear was the doctor who said, “Well, we’ve ruled out everything that will kill you right away.”

And that’s not good enough, because going to the hospital is an exercise in trust. Ill health is frightening, the treatments we offer can be scary, and stress and anxiety make people poor listeners. Our high-tech scans and fast-paced care save lives, but we need to make time for the human issues that pull at every patient’s heart.

Theresa Brown is an oncology nurse and the author of “Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between.”

Source: New York Times Opinionator


A Patient’s Eye-View of Nurses

Posted by Alycia Sullivan

Wed, Feb 12, 2014 @ 01:04 PM


Last June, the month he turned 90, Dr. Arnold S. Relman, the eminent former medical educatorDr. Arnold S. Relman, 90, with his wife, Dr. Marcia Angell, in 2012. He  fell in June and suffered multiple fractures. and editor, fell down a flight of stairs at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He cracked his skull and broke three vertebrae in his neck and more bones in his face.

By the time he arrived at the emergency room, blood was flowing into his brain and impinging on his windpipe, leading to severe choking and dangerously low oxygen levels. Surgeons cut into his neck to connect a breathing tube from his trachea to a mechanical respirator.

Amid the disciplined medical havoc, his heart stopped three times. Resuscitation efforts saved his life, but at the cost of several broken ribs. His condition remained precarious as he developed complications and endured still more medical procedures.

Astonishingly, he lived to write about all this. After a painful 10-week hospital stay and months of rehabilitation, he can walk — gingerly, with a cane — and is largely recovered, with his mental faculties intact.

His riveting account of the medical adventure, in the Feb. 6 issue of The New York Review of Books, is a testimonial to the best emergency medical care and a tremendous will to live. At the same time, however, it betrays a surprising lack of awareness of some critical aspects of the medical profession and the nation’s fragmented health care system.

Despite decades as a medical educator, researcher, author and editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Relman confesses that he “had never before understood how much good nursing care contributes to patients’ safety and comfort, especially when they are very sick or disabled.” Nor did he appreciate the hypnotizing effects of technology, which robs patients of the physician’s bedside manner and affects the training of younger doctors.

How is it that a leading medical professor like Dr. Relman — who has taught hundreds of young doctors at Boston University, the University of Pennsylvania (where he was chairman of the department of medicine) and Harvard — might not have known about the value of modern-day Florence Nightingales?

A number of doctors who have talked to me about Dr. Relman’s article suggest that the culture of medical education may be largely to blame. For example, younger doctors in hospitals spend part of the day on rounds, following professors in their long white coats. Many of these august figures are supremely confident in their observations and opinions; others are more compassionate.

What professors impart on those rounds can have a major effect on the behavior of younger doctors when they go into practice and teach succeeding generations.

Dr. Relman’s initial care was in a major teaching hospital, Massachusetts General in Boston, where the kind of doctors he taught — students, interns and residents — provided the round-the-clock attention that kept him alive. Yet he did not write directly about their role, referring to them only as “a team.”

On their rounds, some medical professors prefer to talk in a hallway just outside the patient’s room as they discuss test results that are crucial in planning further care. Such behavior appears impersonal, perceived perhaps as a way of shielding bad information.

But many doctors see it as efficient, because they can note the information they deem most important — like heart rate, blood pressure and rate of intravenous drip — by standing at a patient’s door and looking in at the monitors. Feeling no need to go to the bedside, they do not. Instead they rely on nurses, failing to recognize that such behavior omits crucial elements in patient care — the physical touch and the personal touch.

Dr. Relman owes the extension of his life to drugs and devices that did not exist in their present form, if at all, when he was younger. Over the years, the surge in the number of such advances, and most importantly in their hazards, has made work vastly more complicated for doctors, nurses and other health workers. Despite the advantages of technology, tender, loving care from family and nurses is priceless, as is the bedside manner of a sympathetic doctor.

But technology’s monitors, images and devices can deflect that doctor’s attention, as Dr. Relman learned when he reviewed his hospital records and the notes he wrote to nurses and his wife, Dr. Marcia Angell (particularly while he was unable to speak because of the breathing tube).

Instead of descriptions of his appearance and feelings, the doctors’ progress notes in his electronic medical records were filled with technical data. “Conversations with my physicians were infrequent, brief and hardly ever reported,” he wrote, adding:

“What personal care hospitalized patients now get is mostly from nurses. When nursing is not optimal, patient care is never good.”

Many hospital administrators have cut nursing staffs. They say it is to make ends meet; many doctors say it is usually to increase the bottom line.

Nurses’ observations and suggestions have saved many doctors from making fatal mistakes in caring for patients. Though most physicians are grateful for such aid, a few dismiss it — out of arrogance and a mistaken belief that a nurse cannot know more than a doctor.

In many ways, Dr. Relman’s insights reflect changes and generational gaps in training doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Because these disciplines have traditionally been taught in separate silos, they often do not work as tightly as they should.

Now, as health care financing changes and doctors spend more time training in outpatient settings, a growing movement demands coordinating the education of health professionals to prepare them to work more smoothly in teams. If these efforts succeed, perhaps the next generation of doctors will no longer be surprised at the importance of nurses and other allied professionals.

Source: Well: NY Times 


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