As nurses, we often say, “I'm a patient advocate.” In fact, the role of patient advocate is one of the most important roles we assume. In our everyday practice, it's easy to think getting pain medication for a patient to control his or her pain or always listening to our patients is advocating. Yes, these things are part of what we do; however, to truly be patient advocates, we need to empower our patients to speak up.
Empowerment begins with education, which gives our patients the knowledge to understand. We must educate our patients to be able to care for themselves, and they should be taking an active part in the care we provide. Yet, there's a vulnerability that comes with being a patient that can leave him or her feeling powerless. How we educate our patients impacts their health and their care. We can't assume because a patient has had a disease or diagnosis for years that he or she knows all about it and doesn't need further teaching. Each time we educate or reeducate our patients, it may be the way we present the information or it may be the time that they're ready to hear or learn something that makes the difference in changing the lifestyle contributing to the illness.
Another necessary piece of empowerment is for our patients to have an environment in which they feel safe enough to speak for themselves—this begins with you! Our patients need to know that they have a right to receive the best quality care in a noncritical, nonjudgmental atmosphere. For example, they should be encouraged to remind us if we forget to wash our hands or explain something.
And with our patient population continuing to grow as baby boomers age, we need to remind ourselves that this is a population who has lived with the stigma that “if you take pain medication, it will cause you to be addicted.” This requires us to educate these patients on how hard it is to control pain when they wait until their pain level gets too high. Our patients should be empowered to feel safe when asking for pain medication. It has been my unfortunate experience that during report, comments have often been made that a particular patient is a “drug seeker.” These kinds of comments speak the loudest when it has been a family member who's a patient or even when I've been a patient. Even being a nurse, it's hard to feel safe to stand up and speak up when you're a patient knowing this type of thought process exists. That's why empowerment must start with us.
You are your patients' advocate. Remember to provide an environment where your patients feel safe enough to ask questions, be vulnerable, and be an active participant in their healthcare without judgment.
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