As a Speech and Language Therapist, I’ve become very used to the health professional/service user relationship during my 10 years of practice. I remember role-playing these scenarios as a student SLT, which seems a million miles away now that it has become almost second nature. Over time, you feel as though you can better understand the concerns and needs of the people you are working with, which in my case is children with communication difficulties and their parents.
In actual fact, there is no way to really appreciate how it can feel to be a service-user (or patient) until you or a close loved one ends up in that position. Everyone’s experience may be different but ultimately there are emotions that are difficult to explain if you have never had to hand control over to a group of strangers (i.e. health professionals!). This realisation abruptly came to me when I ended up on the other side of the relationship following a trip to A&E which resulted in a 4 week hospital stay.
In that month, I learned that I am not the patient I thought I would be. I was impatient, inquisitive, frustrated and determined. Sometimes these traits were helpful, sometimes not so much. I now understand that my responses were perfectly normal in relation to my situation. Suddenly I had a new surge of empathy for parents who had come for meetings with a list of questions scribbled in a notepad for me; I felt a rush of sadness for those who had sent me emails late at night, coming from a place of pure desperation.
I currently have some time off work to recover which has also given me time to reflect on some of my experiences, particularly the health professional/service user relationship. I started to think about the things that patients want health professionals to know and consider. Some of these may be obvious, but yet sometimes it is small, seemingly apparent things that are over-looked when rushing between appointments. So my advice to me (as a health professional) from myself (as a patient!) is as follows…
1. Involvement is Empowerment– We all know that it’s good practice to set joint goals. Yet as health professionals, we can often secretly come along with our own agenda or expectations. When I ended up in a hospital bed, I found that some health professionals didn’t always ask for my opinion, while others quite expertly placed my targets at the centre of their care (take a bow, Physios!!). You can imagine which professionals I responded best to! When I was asked to prioritise goals, given a diary to fill with positive moments, provided with an exercise to practice, I felt like I had a role in the ‘team’. I felt less passive and more involved.
In my job working with children and young people, we often talk about ‘the team around the child’, when in actuality, the child should be the captain of the team rather than a separate entity in the middle! We should never do things for or to the person in our care just because it may be quicker or easier. Everything should be agreed and then achieved in partnership. A simple question such as, “Do you have any concerns or is there anything you want to know?” can quickly put the patient back in control.
2. Think about your language– Speech and Language Therapists love acronyms and all health professionals revel in a bit of jargon. Sometimes this ‘professional speak’ slips in to our conversations. Just remember that a technical term that you brush past, will be the piece of information that the patient mentally logs and googles as soon as you leave the room. I did this on multiple occasions and ended up on all kinds of forums reading horror stories about multiple tests/ailments/medications..!!
I suppose I have learned that one of our roles as a health professional should be to act as a kind of filter for google by providing accurate, concise information in a jargon free way. By doing this, the service user won’t need to reach for their phone in a panic!
3. Remember the most important reader of reports- When I was discharged from hospital, I was handed a final medical report. There were a few things mentioned that were new to me and now that I had been discharged, it was too late to discuss with anyone.
The life of a health professional is busy- on a typical day we are asked so many questions. Yet simply being an approachable, smiling face who either 1) discusses the contents of a report prior to writing it or 2) offers to discuss the report after writing it, can alleviate anxiety. Reports should never just be a paperwork exercise. We need to consider that the primary reader is the patient (or in my role, the parent of a child who I am working with). This should also inform the tone of the report and the language used (see my point above!! Googling medical acronyms is not fun!).
4. Do everything with warmth and compassion- Not everyone naturally exudes warmth….and sometimes it’s difficult to remain pleasant if someone is rude to you (unfortunately, this does occasionally happen within our roles). However, I felt most valued and listened to when a health professional dealt with me in a compassionate manner. Health professionals must remember the person who they are treating may be stressed/scared/frustrated/in pain and within that moment, they just need someone to listen and care.
From the nurse who came from my health centre to visit me in hospital, to the junior doctor who told me funny stories about his time as a patient when I was having a difficult day….These are the professionals who ‘get’ what patient care is about. Essentially, what I have learned is that the old adage is true, however clichéd it may be- treat others as you would wish to be treated. I have picked up a few tips from some of the fantastic health professionals who supported me.
If you are reading this as a health professional, you probably know all of these things. What you might not know is the difference that it makes. You could be the most technically competent doctor /physio/SLT/nurse but what a person in your care will remember most is how you made them feel.
I’m hoping that I can switch back from patient to health professional again soon; and when I do, I plan to approach my more familiar role with fresh eyes.