The combination of pain, stress, uncertainty, and a lack of control can be a recipe for conflict. Think about the times in your career you’ve heard things like, “What are we waiting for? Why aren’t you helping me? Do you know what you’re doing? When is the doctor coming? This is ridiculous.”
We encounter difficult patients and experiences all the time. Because of the additional stress that the medical or hospital setting can induce, small stressors can become escalating and potentially dangerous situations. When patients are scared, anxious, or in pain, otherwise benign miscommunications can be amplified. Conversations can quickly become confrontations.
Therapeutic conversations are part and parcel of a nurse’s daily work. One of the most important things we do for our patients is communicate. As the nurse, we often act as liaisons between family, patients, and physicians. Good communication can be the difference between a good interaction and a poor one. Preventing escalating behavior before it starts can keep everyone safe.
Naturally, you cannot control other people’s behavior, but you can control your response to it. Below are some tips for how to defuse and de-escalate conflict interactions.
Start with empathy. When someone first starts to become anxious or upset, try to start by considering why. Are they in pain? Are there precipitating factors that are contributing to their outburst? Try to use your active listening skills to show the person respect. Reflect back to the patient, repeat what they are saying, and really put yourself in their position.
Stand back. Have you ever heard that communication is 7% verbal and 93% nonverbal? Uncross your arms, use an open body stance, and position yourself in a respectful and non-confrontational pose. Approach patients from the side, and try not to back anyone into a corner. Maintain a safe talking distance. Most people are more comfortable with about three feet of buffer.
Be mindful of how you say it. Verbal communication encompasses tone, inflection, and volume. When someone begins to escalate a situation, be sure to use a slow, calm, and low volume for communication. Matching their aggression does not help defuse a situation.
Set limits. When patients get upset or defensive, sometimes it is because they are seeking information. Try to provide information about their care or answer their questions within the context of limits. For example, a statement such as, “When you keep your voice down, I will be able to tell you why we are waiting” can help set expectations of behavior.
Drop your own defensiveness. When a patient starts to get anxious or upset, he or she tends to act irrationally and become very defensive. When someone lacks a sense of control, he or she may start yelling or start actively refusing the plan of care. When you in turn become defensive, this only matches their energy and leads to even greater irrationality. Try not to take actions or words personally and remember to maintain professionalism.
Know when to remove yourself from a situation. There are many reasons that you may need to get a coworker or teammate to “tap in” and help you with a situation. If you are ever truly feeling threatened, do not handle the situation alone. Keeping yourself and your patient safe at all times should be your main priority.
De-escalating anxious or tense situations helps prevent violence or conflict and keeps everyone—staff and patients alike—safe. There are several courses available for certification in therapeutic interventions and crisis prevention. Visit the Crisis Prevention Institute to learn more.
You know the feeling. It’s your third shift in a row, it’s a particularly difficult patient or family, it’s a heartbreaking story, it’s an intense diagnosis, it’s short-staffed night on the unit. Nursing is profoundly tiring—physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Our shifts are long: Even on a normal day, by hour number 10 you may be feeling strained. You can pull from your reserves, but sometimes there isn’t anything left. You have compassion fatigue. You’re experiencing caregiver burnout.
These moments on the unit can be tough. You may feel yourself start to become anxious, or more stressed out that normal. An otherwise meaningless interaction with a doctor, colleague, or patient can leave you nearly in tears. What can you do to avoid burnout?
First of all, in the heat of the moment, take a second to breathe. Try to center yourself by inhaling through your nose and breathing out through your mouth for at least five breaths. This can help calm your body and mind, even when you don’t think it will work.
After your shift ends, it’s time to practice self-care. As nurses, it can be incredibly difficult for us to do this. But just like oxygen masks on an airplane, we all know deep down that it is difficult to care for others when we ourselves are in a fragile, fatigued place.
In theory, the easiest two things to control are our diet and sleep. In practice, we know this isn’t always the case. Aim for quality over quantity: If you can’t get enough sleep, try to make it the best sleep possible. Spend time enhancing your sleep environment with room-darkening shades, white noise machines, comfortable bedding, and a great mattress. Use the “do not disturb” feature on your cell phone. If you’re a night shifter, you could write a note on on your front door that anyone who rings a doorbell will be met with fire and fury.
For your belly, try to pack healthy, filling options for meals and snacks. Aim to always eat breakfast. Low blood sugar can easily translate into crankiness, so try to stay ahead of your curve by packing granola bars in your scrub pockets or bringing easy to eat meals for times when you can’t get a lunch break. (Which, let’s be honest, is every day.)
Most importantly, assess yourself. We as nurses are in the business of assessing our patients, but we rarely turn that critical eye on ourselves. Try to really check in with your emotional reserves, and try to find healthy ways to process your stress. Make a care plan for yourself, and re-assess frequently.
Perhaps you give CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) almost every shift, and you consider yourself a code blue champion. Maybe you work on a med-surg unit or in a surgery center that rarely has to code a patient. Despite the ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) certification card in your wallet, you may find your skills need brushing up on. Below are some tips for ensuring that you are providing excellent CPR.
1. Get your hands on the chest quickly.
As soon as you notice that a patient is pulseless, place your hands on the chest to start compressions while yelling for others to help. Minimize interruptions to CPR.
2. Use your equipment.
If possible, use a stool so that the compressor is at the proper height, and also place a backboard or use the backboard setting on a mattress to get the proper resistance for compressions.
3. Go fast, but not too fast.
Occasionally compressors get so full of adrenaline that they compress at a rate of 120-150, which is too fast to allow for ventricular filling. The rate should be between 100-120. Tip: Music services such as Spotify actually have entire playlists created for the ideal rate of CPR!
4. Depth is important.
Get the proper depth to allow full recoil of the chest. The recommended depth for adults is 2 to 2.4 inches. Sometimes this may mean lifting your hands completely off the chest after each compression.
5. Too much of a good thing.
Pause for breaths without an advanced airway, but also be careful not to “overbag” the patient. Excessive ventilation can increase intrathoracic pressure and decrease coronary perfusion pressure.
6. Use end tidal to measure your compressions.
End tidal carbon dioxide monitoring can reveal the quality of your compressions. End tidal greater than 20 is associated with greater survival outcomes. Values of less than 20 indicate that you need to adjust your rate and depth. If end tidal suddenly jumps into the 40s, you likely have return of spontaneous circulation.
7. Switch compressors to combat fatigue.
Proper CPR is exhausting. Switch every two minutes, and you can give epi every two compressors.
8. Designate a CPR coach.
If you have extra eyes or hands, designate a CPR coach who will monitor the depth and rate of compressions and who will help ensure that compressors are switching appropriately and end tidal is appropriate.
High quality compressions lead to greatly improved patient outcomes.
Stethoscopes dangled around the necks of nurses wearing navy NursesTakeDC t-shirts and big smiles. “Where are y’all from? We’re from Arizona!” More than 800 nurses from 40 U.S. states congregated at the NursesTakeDC Rally on May 5th in Washington, DC. The rally was to support legislation establishing federally mandated requirements for safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios, while drawing public attention to the staffing crisis in many U.S. hospitals. This was the second such rally; last May, the inaugural event drew about 250 participants to the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
The rally was cosponsored by the grassroots nursing movement Show Me Your Stethoscope, a group that formed spontaneously on Facebook after nurse Janie Harvey Garner watched The View host Joy Behar ask why a nurse in the Miss America pageant was wearing “a doctor’s stethoscope” around her neck. That group now has more than 650,000 members. Other rally sponsors and supporters included the Illinois Nurses Association, Hirenurses.com, Nursebuzz, The Gypsy Nurse, Century Health Services, and UAW Local 2213 Professional Registered Nurses.
The NursesTakeDC rally was originally scheduled to take place on the steps of the Capitol, but thunderstorms and downpours forced the meeting indoors at a hotel in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. Although the setting lacked symbolism, participants still raised handmade posters and shouted rally cries. Rally organizers estimated the weather had an impact on overall attendance, but they were still encouraged by the turnout. After the speakers wrapped up, a group of about 150 nurses headed to the U.S. Capitol steps for photographs and final thoughts.
© 2017 David Miller, RN
Two, Four, Six, Eight, Patient Safety Isn’t Fake
“We aren’t laughing, we want staffing!” Cheers and whistles erupted out of the crowd. After 10 minutes of rally cheers and chants, the gathering turned its attention to the first of many speakers who would highlight issues faced by nurses in every specialty and across the profession. Actress Brooke Anne Smith began by reciting a moving poem about nurse warriors on the front lines.
Event organizer Jalil Johnson then took the stage, giving a keynote speech that addressed the challenges bedside nurses face every day. He spoke about nurses as the foundation of health care, and the unrelenting pressure to perform in deteriorating conditions. While discussing dire staffing situations, Johnson said that he fought every day, “making sure I didn’t give anyone a reason to come after the license I had worked so hard for.”
He discussed the paradox that year after year, nurses are rated the most trusted profession, yet no one trusts nurses when they say they are overworked, overburdened, and practicing in unsafe conditions. Nurses alone are not enough to fight this battle, he said. “To the public, we say: Trust us when we say the industry makes it nearly impossible to deliver the care you need. Trust us when we say we need your support.”
Other NursesTakeDC rally speakers included Katie Duke, Terry Foster, Deena McCollum, Linda Boly, Julie Murray, Catherine Costello, Kelsey Rowell, Leslie Silket, Dan Walter, Nicole Reina, Monique Doughty, Doris Carroll, Charlene Harrod-Owuamana, Debbie Hickman, and Janie Harvey Garner.
The Nurse Staffing Standards for Hospital Patient Safety and Quality Care Act
On May 4th, the day before the rally, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) reintroduced the latest iterations of the Nurse Staffing Standards for Hospital Patient Safety and Quality Care Act (H.R. 2392 and S. 1063). The bills seek to amend the Public Health Service Act to establish registered nurse-to-patient staffing ratio requirements in hospitals.
In a press release, Rep. Schakowsky’s office writes: “This bill is about saving lives and improving the health of patients by improving nursing care—ensuring that there are adequate numbers of qualified nurses available to provide the highest possible care.” The press release acknowledges that study after study has shown that safe nurse-to-patient staffing ratios result in better care for patients. “It’s time we act on the evidence and the demands of nurses who have been fighting to end to dangerous staffing,” the release continues. “I’m proud to be a partner with nurses across the country in promoting this bill and working to ensure quality care and patient safety.”
Rep. Schakowksy attended last year’s event, but was unable to attend this year. The Nurse Staffing Standards Act is the latest in a string of bills that have been introduced to Congress every session. Previous bills S. 864 and H.R.1602 died in committee last session. S. 864 was first introduced in May of 2009; H.R. 1602 was first introduced in 2004 and has been sponsored seven times so far. Rally co-chair Doris Carroll explained why: “The legislation is reintroduced session after session, and it continues to die in committee because there is no bipartisan support.”
In today’s environment, politics can be touchy. The day before the rally, the House of Representatives passed the American Health Care Act of 2017. Among nurses there are very polarized viewpoints on health care, abortion, assisted suicide, and other controversial topics. In his speech, Johnson acknowledged that not all nurses think alike. “We are a profession divided,” he admitted. “But when it comes to safe staffing, we all agree. This is a movement devoid of partisanship. Staffing is not a partisan issue.”
The proposed text and ratios for the Nurse Staffing Standards Act are below:
A hospital would be required during each shift, except during a declared emergency, to assign a direct care registered nurse to no more than the following number of patients in designated units:
1 patient in an operating room and trauma emergency unit
2 patients in all critical care units, intensive care, labor and delivery, and post anesthesia units
3 patients in antepartum, emergency, pediatrics, step-down, and telemetry units
4 patients in intermediate care nursery, medical/surgical, and acute care psychiatric care units
5 patients in rehabilitation units
6 patients in postpartum (3 couplets) and well-baby nursery units
Rally speakers encouraged nurses to reach out to their representatives in Congress to show support for safe staffing legislation, and handouts for participants detailed how to find representative names and numbers for letter writing campaigns and phone calls.
Where Is Everybody?
When one of the speakers asked why there wasn’t more involvement in the grassroots movement, and why there weren’t more nurses present, several voices called back from the crowd. “Everyone’s working!” one shouted. Another called out, “They don’t have the money!”
“Really, where the heck is everybody else?” one rally participant said. She gestured to the conference room, which at the time held about 100 nurses. This nurse was part of a group attending from New Jersey, including Kate McLaughlin, a registered nurse and founder of NJ Safe Patient Ratios, a group dedicated to the support of safe staffing in New Jersey and promotion of ratio law S. 1280 in New Jersey’s Senate.
“In New Jersey, multiple bills have been introduced, every single session, and nothing ever passes,” McLaughlin said. “In California it was the same thing, and then the tenth year, they involved unions and patients and it finally worked.” She said she started to pay attention to safe staffing laws in her state, and launched a petition on change.org. “I stalked nurses on Facebook and found people that way,” she continued. “Each week, we organize and post the contact information for two state senators.” She is starting a movement in New Jersey, hoping to motivate others to show support for these bills. “It’s an election year,” she said. “Now is the time.”
McLaughlin said her state’s ratio law was first introduced in February 2016, but there has been no vote and no hearings, “which just feels disrespectful.” She was told the governor didn’t support the bill, and “that we might need to wait until there’s a new governor.”
The problem, according to several nurses at the rally, isn’t a lack of awareness. “I think it’s apathy,” McLaughlin said. “This is a profession of predominantly women, and we are taken advantage of. They know we don’t get breaks, but they’re okay with the labor law violations. We’ve somehow accepted that this is normal—this is not normal.”
Carroll also expressed discontent that no one seems to care about this issue. “Why has this taken so long? Why hasn’t California’s success spread like wildfire?” she asked. “Well, health care changed, and it became a multi-billion dollar business for hospitals and insurance companies.”
Dan Walter, another speaker, acknowledged that sometimes nurses do not report safety issues because they fear retribution. Walter is a former political consultant and publisher of HospitalSafetyReviews.com, a web site that he established for nurses to anonymously post about patient safety issues where they work. In his speech, he explained the inspiration for creating the site: “You are the activists and you know what needs to be done. I want people to be able to go there, post, and we will keep it as anonymous as possible so we can protect you.” He expressed hope that this web site will be a powerful platform to improve patient ratios.
How Bad Is Staffing?
Nurses from a hospital in downtown Washington, DC, expressed frustration with the lack of support and resources from hospital administrators. “The other day, we had so many critical patients in the department we ran out of monitors,” one said. Another said that 80% of the nurses who work in her hospital’s emergency department have less than two years’ experience. “The turnover is so high,” she said. “People get so burned out because of the short staffing.”
Just how short are units staffed? “In our ED [emergency department], someone the other night was taking care of seven patients,” one nurse from this group said. “And these were sick patients, people with LVADs [left ventricular assist devices], and ICU patients.” This is common all over the country. A medical-surgical nurse may be taking care of up to eight or more patients at a time.
Llubia Albrechtsen, a registered nurse and family nurse practitioner at the rally, said there have been times she has refused to take on additional patients in the emergency department where she works. “When I have five patients, I need to take a step back and pay more attention, because their conditions may worsen,” she said. “It’s hard, because we could be providing excellent care to many of our patients, but with limited resources we have to do the best we can and hope nothing bad happens.”
Albrechtsen said that although hospital administration makes an effort to listen to nurse concerns about staffing, through town halls or open meetings, not much has changed. “Many areas still work understaffed,” she said.
Why Does Staffing Matter?
A policy brief disseminated at the rally lists the effects of inadequate nurse staffing, including the overwhelming evidence that safe staffing saves lives. High patient-to-nurse ratios lead to poor outcomes and a demonstrated increase in patient morbidity and mortality. Inadequate staffing has been associated with an increase in hospital readmissions, falls, pressure ulcers, hospital-acquired infections, and medication errors.
Poor staffing is expensive. In addition to causing poor patient outcomes, nurse burnout causes injuries, illness, and contributes to the growing nursing shortage. Replacing nurses due to turnover takes between 28 to 110 days, and costs the average hospital $6.2 million per year.
“The health care industry generates $3 trillion annually,” Johnson said in his address. “We are living in an age of greed, where the health care industry measures patient satisfaction by a customer service model. This is prioritized over quality and safety. Reducing burnout, staff retention, and caring for your staff are at the bottom of the barrel of priorities.”
The grassroots movement behind safe staffing is fighting for environments that allow nurses to do their work in the way in which they were trained. “[A nurse’s] work has been diminished to defensive practices; it has been reduced to a list of tasks to complete,” Johnson said. “That is not nursing.”
In Johnson’s final remarks, he spoke to empower nurses to return to their states, hospitals, and colleagues with a message to inspire change. “We have to show up in person, put boots on the ground, and be ready to engage and pull more nurses into this movement,” Johnson said. “Most importantly, we have to believe that with over 3 million registered nurses and over 1 million licensed practical nurses, our profession can come together as one. We will take back our profession and regain control of our practice.”
Another rally is already in the works for next year. The organizers of NursesTakeDC will now direct their focus toward supporting any state that has pending policy and legislation aimed at improving nurse-to-patient ratios and safe staffing. Organizer Carroll said that this year is a learning curve for the organizers, and they hope that next year they will have something even better with an even bigger audience.
“We encourage all nurses, practicing at all levels and in all settings, to unify and support beside nurses in the fight for safe staffing,” said Johnson to a room full of applause and cheers. “We fight for recognition—we will not justify our existence! There is no health care industry without us, and we will determine what is best for our practice and for our patients.”
We know about the dangers of opioid prescriptions: A recent study linked opioid addiction to just one encounter with opioids for pain control, usually prescribed in an emergency department. (To learn more about safe opioid prescription medication patient teaching, read an article here.) The question is, how can you effectively manage pain without opioids? Pain requires frequent assessment and the setting of realistic expectations by a patient and his or her care team. Patients need to know that although it may not be possible for them to feel entirely pain-free, they are still entitled to some level of pain control. Below is a review of non-pharmacological methods for controlling your patients’ pain.
Heat it up or cool it down. Many of us neglect the value that a hot blanket or heating pad or a cold pack or bag of ice can have on our patients’ pain. It may not help with their chronic pain, but for acute pain, applying heat or cold can be very effective. Just monitor the patient’s skin for any burns or skin irritation at the site, and leave heat or cold on for no longer than 15 minutes at a time.
Guided imagery or relaxation. There are several guided imagery scripts you can find online that you can run through with a patient or even print off and hand to a family member at the bedside. Several institutions have caring or healing patient channels that provide relaxing music or imagery exercises.
Distraction. Can you help your patient turn on the TV, or bring them some magazines or books? When patients are lying in a bed with nothing to focus on but their pain, their perception of the pain can increase. Try to distract the patients with music, TV, art therapy, or books. These methods can help a patient alter their perception of pain.
Promote rest. Make sure your patients can get plenty of sleep. We all know that the hospital is ironically one of the worst places to get a good night’s sleep, but sleep deprivation decreases the patient’s pain threshold and increases their stress response. Excessive stimuli should be reduced for patients as much as possible, so take care to eliminate excess noise by closing doors, adjusting the room temperature, and decreasing harsh artificial lighting.
Fed is best. If your patient is able to eat, ensure they are getting adequate nutrition and enough food to feel full. Hospital food can be notoriously unappetizing, but a feeling of hunger can also exacerbate patient perception of pain. If possible, suggest to family or friends that they bring some favorite snacks or meals for the patient to enjoy.
Advocate. Frequent assessment and evaluation of patients’ pain and their response to pain interventions is crucial for our patients. Be sure you are re-assessing frequently and advocating to the physician if you feel that pain is being inadequately managed.