Tips for Connecting With Your Patient's Family

Tips for connecting with your patient's family

By Laura Winzeler, contributor

Connecting with your patient's family while providing nursing care is the compassionate, respectful thing to do, and it's extremely important for obtaining a positive result. Research indicates that a lack of productive communication between patients and caregivers can result in ineffective or inappropriate care — or even fatal errors.

Family-centered relationships help nurses earn the trust of the patient. By honoring the family's preferences, values, beliefs and cultural background, you demonstrate to the patient their family is being listened to. This makes both the patient and their family more eager to communicate and collaborate with you to meet your patient's needs and improve their health care outcomes.

See if the following tips inspire new ideas for ways you can more effectively connect with your patient's family.

1. Integrate family members into the medical team as essential participants

Nicole Rochester, MD, physician, health advocate and CEO of Your GPS Doc, LLC, is passionate about this topic. While caring for her own father, she says she was "frequently frustrated with the lack of engagement between the nurses, doctors and other members of the medical team with my sisters and me."

Dr. Rochester believes that one of the most important ways nurses can connect with families "is to acknowledge them as an integral part of the medical team. Family members/caregivers are an incredible source of information. They are often the single source of truth and the one person with knowledge of the entire patient history."

She continues, "In an era where we lack interoperability between electronic health records, a family caregiver can be a godsend to nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals. Nurses should empower family members to serve as strong advocates for their patients, serving as the eyes and ears when the nurse is not in the room."

2. Share information with the family

Dawn C. Dexter, a medical-surgical nurse with over 30 years of experience, highlights the importance of the second principle of patient- and family-centered care: information sharing. When her husband's 100-year-old grandfather was sick in the hospital, Dawn spent many days and nights at his bedside. She realized how uninformed she often felt by the medical staff caring for her loved one.

Dawn wanted to be treated with respect and informed about topics such as:

  • Is the doctor coming to visit today, and if so, when?
  • What tests is my relative having today?
  • Can he have pain medication, and how often?
  • If the pain medication doesn't work, can my family member have something else?
  • What are those medications for, and can my loved one refuse them if he wants to?

Be sure you speak to patients in lay terms, avoiding too much medical jargon, and try to assess their understanding in a way that doesn't embarrass or humiliate them. Jeffrey Crandall, MD, FACP, says that if people think they're supposed to understand, they won't ask questions. Dr. Crandall states that 35-40% of patients in most areas of the country don't have health literacy, which often results in them being labeled "noncompliant."

3. Encourage family members to ask questions and express concerns freely

Family members can feel intimidated in medical settings and be reluctant to speak up. This can put their loved ones at risk. Let patients and their family members know that their questions, concerns and preferences are welcome and actively invited. Tell them not to worry about seeming "pushy" or "demanding," and assure them that you'd rather be corrected or questioned than risk harming their loved one.

4. Empower families to be active participants in care plans through education

A patient's care doesn't always stop the day they're discharged from the hospital, especially if they have a chronic illness or serious injury that requires in-home nursing care. When family members are properly informed and educated, the patient's care plan can be executed more smoothly.

If you make a family member an ally in delivering care and supporting patient improvements once they're recovering at home, the family feels less anxious and the patient can be more comfortable. This may take the form of family members encouraging the patient to follow the prescribed diet and exercise plan, helping with medication management and at-home testing and providing emotional support to the patient.

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