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Guiding COPD Patients from Diagnosis to Treatment

Guiding COPD Patients from Diagnosis to Treatment

Helping patients to navigate what comes after a difficult diagnosis is a necessary part of our profession. In my many years working with patients facing progressive diseases, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) , I have found that they often have questions, namely:

What do I do now?

That’s where we, as nurses and other health care providers, can offer answers. COPD is not currently curable; however, there is still hope for these patients. Lifestyle changes and medical advancements make it possible for patients to improve their ability to breathe and overall quality of life. The objective of treatment is to slow the progression of the disease and assist with managing its symptoms. As patients with COPD come to terms with their disease, here’s what I would recommend to guide them through the next steps of their journey, from diagnosis to treatment:

Work With Them to Create a Plan

After giving a diagnosis of COPD, educating patients on the disease and working with them on a personalized plan to start addressing their symptoms is an important first step. In fact, there are many lifestyle changes that patients can make every day to not only accommodate their new medical needs but also to help improve lung function. Committing to a diet of anti-inflammatory foods — like fatty fish or dark leafy greens — participating in regular low-impact physical activities and other techniques can help to reduce inflammation in the lungs that can exacerbate symptoms.

Help Them Take the Steps to Quit Smoking

Smoking can cause significant damage in the lungs which only increases over time. One of the best things that patients can do if they’ve been diagnosed with chronic lung disease is to quit smoking if they currently smoke. It’s important to arm them with information and tools they need to successfully do so — whether it’s helping them to identify smoking triggers, create an exercise and diet regimen or connect to support groups or other resources. For example, at Lung Health Institute, we offer our patients access to programs like American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking® Plus, a flexible online smoking cessation program that can be completed in six weeks.

Have an Honest Conversation About What Treatment Is Right for Them

Every patient is different, and treatments will vary for each patient with COPD — depending on the severity of the disease and other factors, including age, fitness level or medical history. That’s why it’s critical to create an environment where patients are comfortable being completely honest about how they’re feeling both physically and mentally. That will ensure that we can provide them with the best course of action when it comes to their treatment.

Melissa Rubio, Ph.D., APRN, is a nurse practitioner and principal investigator for research at the Lung Health Institute, based at its Dallas clinic. Rubio also currently serves as a visiting professor at DeVry University’s Chamberlain College of Nursing in Downers Grove, Illinois. Prior to joining Lung Health Institute, Rubio worked at Pleasant Ridge Internal Medicine in Arlington, Texas, as a family nurse practitioner. Rubio holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee College of Nursing. She also earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the same school. She is a board-certified family nurse practitioner and a certified principal investigator. Rubio is also a member of the North Texas Nurse Practitioners and the Southern Nursing Research Society.

Helping Patients Navigate the “Hidden Symptoms” of COPD

Helping Patients Navigate the “Hidden Symptoms” of COPD

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.