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5 Tips for Dealing with ICU Patients’ Families

5 Effective Tips for Dealing with ICU Patients’ Families

By Erin Wallace, contributor

Families of ICU patients face numerous emotional stressors while their loved ones are being cared for by skilled medical professionals. Statistics show that 50 percent of US hospital patient deaths occur during or after a stay in the ICU, and two-thirds of these deaths involve an active decision (usually by family members) to limit treatment. 

Whatever the outcome of treatment, families in the ICU go through big emotional swings that require expert support. Learning how to navigate the emotions of ICU patients’ families is a characteristic every ICU nurse should have. For those that struggle with this, below are five tips to help. 

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How Nurses Can Support ICU Patients and Their Families

1. Establish rapport

When taking on a new patient you probably won’t have a true sense of what’s going on until you make your own first assessment. Establish common ground when you enter the patient’s room. Introduce yourself to both the patient and his/her family, let them know exactly what you’re doing and ask if they have any questions or concerns.

According to Leslie G. Oleck, MSN, a psychiatric clinical nurse specialist and graduate instructor at the Indiana University School of Nursing, “What nurses do best is to educate patients and families. When people feel like they have a better understanding of what’s going on, they’re able to cope better. They don’t get short with each other or the patient as frequently ― and the patient doesn’t get short with them.”

A good relationship and rapport with ICU patients and their families is established over time, don’t be discouraged by the extra time it takes to build this.  As you continue to deliver accurate information about their prognosis and status, trust will naturally build between you and your patient. 

2. Let the ICU patients and families be heard

Medical professionals come in and out of hospital rooms all day, and many nurses or doctors may not take the time to listen to anxious patients and family concerns. When you take time to sit down and talk with ICU patients and their families, it can make a world of difference in how they’re able to cope with the situation or what might follow it.

To start, ask an open-ended question such as “How are you feeling?” or “Is there anything I can do to make you feel more comfortable?” When you listen closely to what ICU patients and their families have to say, you can help provide them with continued top-quality nursing care.

3. Make connections on a person-to-person level

If the situation is appropriate, making efforts to lighten the mood and be personable can go to great lengths towards making ICU patients’ families feel comfortable. Ask them about how many children are in their family, where they are from, what their general background is or how they met their spouse.

Most people enjoy talking about these aspects of their lives, but tread carefully: some patients or families may be reluctant to open up. If they don’t respond right away, don’t push the issue, and continue to do your best to make them feel comfortable and understood.

4. Meet basic human needs for ICU patients’ families

In a study performed at the Duke University School of Nursing, which examined nursing strategies to support family members of ICU patients at high risk of dying, it was discovered that when nurses made a genuine effort to support the well-being of families, it made a big difference in their overall outlook or mood.

One son of a patient who participated in the study said that “the night shift nurse asked me, had I eaten anything? That’s incredible to me. They care about me. And they’re not just here drawing a paycheck…it makes me feel valued; it reassures me…it makes me feel really good to be here and that my mom’s here. I know in a sense that they’re taking care of me too because they care about my feelings.”

5. Demonstrate professionalism

When nurses are able to show a calm and confident demeanour, according to the same study, it can help family members cope by allowing them to know that their loved one is in capable hands. Nurses can show professionalism by:

  • Showing respect for patients and families
  • Providing evidence you’re working with other healthcare providers for the best possible treatment plan
  • Delivering factual information

The study also found that perceived collaboration among the healthcare team “instilled confidence in the care of the patient and trust that information received was consistent and truthful. Several family members described nurses working together as a team, helping each other for the greater good of the patient.”

Family members of ICU patients participating in this study described having a better ability to cope with their family member’s illness when they had factual information provided for them from the attending nurses, and some felt more prepared for what might happen next.

When RNs take the time to demonstrate professionalism, meet comfort needs of ICU patients’ families, make connections on a person-to-person level, let families be heard and understood and work hard to establish a rapport, they can successfully deal with the situations that ICU patients and their families are facing.

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