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STANDING OUT: How Oncology Nurses Can Take the Lead in Patient Education

DiGiulio, Sarah

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000446236.66385.fc

Patient education is a huge part of the oncology nurse's role, a topic that Lisa Hartkopf Smith, MS, RN, CNS, AOCN, a hematology/oncology clinical nurse specialist at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio—who was recently honored with the National Magnet Nurse of the Year for Transformational Leadership Award from the American Nurses Credentialing Center—feels strongly about.

“The only way the patient is really going to get better—to help prevent and manage side effects—is if they take an active role and if they know what to do,” she said.

Hartkopf Smith has been a hematology/oncology clinical nurse specialist for 30 years. The ANCC award is given in recognition of outstanding contributions of clinical nurses for innovation, consultation, leadership, and professional risk-taking.

In her work at Riverside for the past 20 years, she has helped develop online courses for the Ohio Health institutions for health care providers on topics such as safe handling of chemotherapy and pain management; she has been a part of the initiative to strengthen nursing certification within her institution; and she leads the Patient Education Committee for Oncology.

In this interview, she talks about the Patient Education Committee and the initiatives she has been involved in—and how nurses at other institutions can do the same.

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Do you think it's important for every institution to have its own patient education committee and create institution-specific materials?

Lisa Hartkopf Smith, MS, RN, CNS, AOCN: “Yes I do, I definitely do. You really want to make sure that your patients are getting the correct information—patients can go out and find all sorts of crazy stuff on the Internet. We also want to make sure that the nurses are all conveying the same information to patients. The information needs to be evidence-based, and it needs to be consistent.



“Some of the materials should be specific to the institution—i.e., scheduling, directions, etc.—but not all of them need to be. Materials should follow the Oncology Nursing Society and National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines.”

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What does the Patient Education Committee that you lead do?

“We develop patient-education materials for cancer patients. The materials are all evidence-based, and use a reading level that patients can understand. We have posted all of our materials online—for our institution and at the six institutions in our system—so that anybody can have access to the materials where they work and access to the most current version.

“The committee is an Ohio Health committee—so we have representatives from all the different campuses. The first thing we did [as a committee] was to take inventory of all the patient-education materials we already had out there. Then we came up with a priority list of what we wanted to work on. And then we also made the commitment that we were going to put everything that we could online so that everybody has access to it.”

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One of the projects there you've been involved with was developing a chemotherapy kit for patients. Why was there a need for that?

“Traditionally when people start chemotherapy, they get a lot of information. The typical method to teach patients about their treatments is to hand them stacks and stacks of papers and pamphlets—a one-way communication, which we thought was overwhelming for the patient and also wasn't always practical. So we wanted to find a different teaching strategy where we would show patients the different items they would need and tell them how to use it.

“So we came up with this chemotherapy kit—basically it's a nicely designed burlap bag with all the items and all the information the patient will need for self-care during chemotherapy, along with a pamphlet to explain each of the items.

“For example, while receiving chemotherapy, patients need to prevent infections. The pamphlet tells patients what they need to do to prevent infections. But the kit itself has an individually labeled bag that says ‘Prevent Infections,’ and inside that bag is a thermometer, a hand sanitizer, a neutropenic wallet card—telling patients what to do if they have a fever, and if they need to go to the emergency room. The card also gives the employees in the emergency room an outline of what they need to do.

“Another bag says ‘Manage Nausea’—and inside is ginger candy and an acupressure band. There is another bag for ‘Mouth Care,’ with a soft personal toothbrush and lemon candies for taste changes.

“The kit offers a different way for patients to remember what to do rather than just talking at them. We were looking at strategies for a hands-on approach with showing and active participation by the patient to team them about chemotherapy.”

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What other initiatives has the Patient Education Committee been involved with?

“We've developed scripting for patient education for nurses for chemotherapy. It tells nurses what they need to teach the patient about chemotherapy—scripting that information, giving the nurses the words (if they want to use them)—and telling nurses where to find the resources that they would want to give their patients.

“The scripts serve as nursing guidelines for patient education for chemotherapy and standardize the information that all patients receive. For example, every patient who gets chemotherapy needs to know about birth control. They need to know about mouth care. They need to know about low blood counts. We give the nurses the tools they need to teach their patients.

“We have also put together a patient planner—a notebook that serves as a combination of a day planner and cancer information guide that patients can carry wherever they go. Patients can write down their schedule of appointments, doctors' names and phone numbers, diagnostic test reports, and treatment plan. The planner also includes general oncology information: definitions of cancer, types of cancer, radiation, chemotherapy, eating hints, etc.”

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What advice would you give nurses who want to get involved with patient education at their own institution?

“Join the Oncology Nursing Society, and seek out your local chapter. It can offer ideas, incentives, and resources for nurses. Look at the national guidelines for patient education, and specifically for oncology patient education.

“And include nurses from all the different areas of oncology on patient education committees—representatives from inpatient care, the infusion center, the outpatient center, etc. We do the same things—we do have a lot of overlap. Chemotherapy teaching is chemotherapy teaching, whether the patient gets it in the outpatient area or the inpatient area. And have a patient or someone without medical training involved.”

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New Series!

This article is part of a new series, spotlighting oncology nurses who have taken leads at their institution to improve patient care, telling those stories and showing how oncology nurses everywhere can do the same.

We welcome suggestions about who and what to cover next! Email us at

© 2014 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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