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When treating a patient with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), the physical symptoms are usually easy to see. The psychological impacts, like depression and anxiety, are there too, but they can be more difficult to identify. That’s why it is critical for the nurses and other health care providers caring for these patients to have a better understanding of what they are experiencing – both physically and mentally – in order to guide the best possible care.
Because little research exists on the emotions and feelings a patient faces while living with this chronic disease, I set out to learn more. My findings from a series of interviews with severe (stage IV) COPD patients published in The Journal for Nurse Practitioners uncovered some of these “hidden symptoms” of COPD, shedding light on the mental struggles COPD patients must face every day. Additionally, I found that some health care providers can do more to lessen this burden for the patient.
I believe there are steps that nurses can take to ensure that they’re addressing all of the symptoms of COPD:
- Help Patients Make Sense of the Diagnosis: Many of the patients in the study spoke about being confused when they first experienced symptoms of COPD. They knew something was wrong when they started to experience breathlessness, one of the most common symptoms of COPD, but they didn’t fully understand what caused it. As you can imagine, it’s easy to feel afraid when you don’t know what is happening to your body. It’s our job to help educate our patients about their condition, communicating with their physician and offering recommendations beyond just telling them to quit smoking or to use an inhaler.
- Take the Time to Ask Thoughtful Questions: Once diagnosed, many patients are overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, fear and hopelessness. Specifically, severe COPD is often met with increased anxiety about the end of life, and many patients in the study admitted having a difficult time accepting that this is how they were spending their last years. They also often had a hard time being optimistic about the future. It is important to let patients know that they are not alone and encourage them to share anything they may be feeling. This will ultimately help us provide the best possible care and treatment.
- Connect Patients to a Support System: The patients in my research were brave enough to share their stories, and I know there are many more patients out there struggling with similar emotions and feelings. There are many resources that we can offer these patients in order to improve their quality of life, including social support groups, end of life planning, and counseling.
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