The ally in the waiting room

Improving communication with patients’ loved ones


We think of a patient’s recovery happening in multiple locations – in a hospital room or a rehabilitation facility, for example. But many clinicians may not consider the opportunity to aid healing that lies in the waiting room.

The waiting room is where a patient’s loved ones often are and they, sometimes more than anyone, can unlock the path to a patient’s quicker recovery. Friends and family can offer encouragement, as they have an existing bond of trust that can help if a patient needs reinforcement to take their medications or follow other health care advice. But if loved ones are going to help patients, they need help from clinicians. Beyond being potential allies, they are also hurting, experiencing worry or confusion in a world of medical jargon.

The coronavirus changes the relationship of patients and their loved ones, as patients are often isolated or limited in the number of visitors they are allowed to see. A smartphone replaces the smiling faces of friends and relatives at their bedside, and a text is a poor substitute for a hug.

The Hospitalist asked some experienced hospitalists for insight on how best to communicate with patients’ loved ones to improve outcomes for all, medically and emotionally.

Team approach

“Patients feel isolated, terrified, and vulnerable but still need an advocate in the hospital, so daily communication with a patient’s loved one is important to give a sense that the patient is looked after,” said Kari Esbensen, MD, PhD, a hospitalist and palliative care expert at Emory University Hospital Midtown, Atlanta.

Glenn Rosenbluth, MD, a pediatric hospitalist and director, quality and safety programs, at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, San Francisco

Dr. Glenn Rosenbluth

Glenn Rosenbluth, MD, a pediatric hospitalist and director, quality and safety programs, at the University of California, San Francisco, Benioff Children’s Hospital, agreed. He said that the most important thing is to communicate, period.

“We fall into this pattern of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ ” he said. “We need to take the extra step to find out who a patient’s loved ones are. If it is a clinical visit, ask the patient, or maybe get the information from a caseworker, or just pay attention to who is dropping in to see the patient. Having a second person available to jot down notes, or having a handy list of questions – it all helps the patient. We forget that sometimes it can seem like a whirlwind for the patient when they are hurting. We have to remember that a loved one is important to a patient’s care team and we need to include them, empower them, and show that we want to hear their voices.”

Dr. Esbensen said it is critical to start off on the right foot when communicating with a patient’s loved one, especially during the current pandemic.

“With COVID-19, the most important thing is to speak honestly, to say hope for the best but prepare for the worst-case scenario,” Dr. Esbensen said. “We’ve seen that conditions can shift dramatically in short periods of time. The loved one needs to have a sense of the positive and negative possibilities. Families tend to lack understanding of the changes in the patient that are caused by COVID-19. The patient can come out of the hospital debilitated, very different than when they entered the hospital, and we need to warn people close to them about this. Unrealistic expectations need to be guarded against if a patient’s loved ones are going to help.”

Perhaps the best form of communication with a patient’s loved ones is an often-forgotten skill: listening.

“Get an idea from the patient’s loved ones of what the issues are, as well as their idea of what they think of the disease and how it spreads,” Dr. Esbensen said. “Sometimes they are right on target but sometimes there are misinterpretations and we need to help them understand it better. It’s not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ speech that we should give, but try to say, ‘tell me what you think is going on, what you think you’ve heard, and what you’re worried about,’ and learn what is most important to the patient. Start on those terms and adapt; this way you can correct and address what makes them most fearful, which can be different for each loved one. For some, the concern could be that they have children or other vulnerable people in the house. Finding out these other issues is important.”

Dr. Venkatrao Medarametla

Venkatrao Medarametla, MD, SFHM, medical director for hospital medicine at Baystate Medical Center, Springfield, Mass., emphasized that, in a time when hospitalists are being pulled in every direction, it is easy to lose your attention.

“It’s very important that family members know you’re present with them,” he said. “This can be an emotional time and they need empathy. It’s very easy for our list of tasks to get in the way of communicating, including with our body language.”

Dr. Medarametla said one of the reasons to communicate with patients’ loved ones is to calm them – a patient’s relatives or their friends may not be under your medical care, but they are still human beings.

Dr. L. Nell Hodo, Kravis Children's Hospital, New York

Dr. Laura Nell Hodo

“A lot of people just want information and want to be helpful, but we also need to realize that, while we are caring for many patients, this one person is the patient they are focused on,” said Laura Nell Hodo, MD, a pediatric hospitalist at Kravis Children’s Hospital at Mount Sinai in New York. “Don’t rush, and if you know that a patient’s loved one needs more time, make sure it can be found – if not then, at least later on the phone. Fifteen to 20 minutes may be what’s needed, and you can’t shortchange them.”

Dr. Hodo said that a patient’s loved ones often do not realize it is possible to receive phone calls from hospitalists. “We need to remind them that they can get in touch with us. We have to remember how helpless they can feel and how they want to understand what is happening in the hospital.”

For medical adherence issues, sometimes it is best to communicate with the patient and loved one at the same time, Dr. Hodo advised. “Whether it’s for medication or postdischarge exercises, if they both receive the information together it can reinforce adherence. But you also need to remember that the patient may only want a loved one told about certain things, or possibly nothing at all. We need to make sure we understand the patient’s wishes, regardless of whether we think a person close to them can be an ally or not.”

Dr. Esbensen also noted that a loved one can give hospitalists important clues to the emotional components of a patient’s care.

“I remember a patient whose wife told me how he worked in a garage, how he was strong and did not want people to think he was a weak guy just because of what was happening to him,” Dr. Esbensen said. “I didn’t know that he felt he might be perceived in this way. I mentioned to him how I learned he was a good mechanic and he perked up and felt seen in a different light. These things make a difference.”

But when is the best time to speak with a patient’s loved ones? Since much communication is done via phone during the pandemic, there are different philosophies.

“We had a debate among colleagues to see how each of us did it,” Dr. Esbensen said. “Some try to call after each patient encounter, while they are outside the room and it’s fresh in their mind, but others find it better to make the call after their rounds, to give the person their full attention. Most of the time I try to do it that way.”

She noted that, in the current environment, a phone call may be better than a face-to-face conversation with patients’ loved ones.

“We’re covered in so much gear to protect us from the coronavirus that it can feel like a great distance exists between us and the person with whom we’re speaking,” she said. “It’s strange, but the phone can make the conversation seem more relaxed and may get people to open up more.”


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