A Nurse’s Role in Humanising Healthcare

A Conversation with Adjunct Prof. Kylie Ward

Hugh was 19 when he was awoken by a call from his mum around 6am. Over the phone she explained his grandpa had been admitted to Frankston hospital after having an unexpected heart attack.


He immediately headed off to the hospital and arrived to find his mum, dad, brother and uncles and aunties at his grandpa’s bedside. His grandpa was already in a coma. For the next 14 hours, Hugh and his family sat with his grandpa awaiting a miracle that never came. At 9pm his grandpa slipped away and the family mourned the loss.


Throughout this process Hugh describes that it was a young nurse in her early thirties that provided his family with the comfort they needed. She sat with them all day and explained that a similar thing had happened to her father who had also had a heart attack. She brought the family food and water and helped them get their minds off things by talking about footy and holidays and work. Even when her shift ended she stayed for a couple more hours until the ordeal was finally over.


Hugh explains, “I felt really grateful that someone was there to sit through the whole experience. Obviously our family was there but everyone was really down and this nurse really lightened the mood and cheered everyone up. We felt more connected than just a nurse and a patient — we met on a personal level.”


This is a common situation in not just hospitals but in general practice. Nurses are perhaps the most overlooked and yet valuable players in the healthcare space. Often hidden in the shadow of doctors, nurses are rarely the first practitioners to be acknowledged for patient engagement.


And yet, as Adjunct Professor Kylie Ward, CEO of the Australian College of Nursing, explains: “Nurses have been voted, 23 years in a row, the most trusted and ethical professionals. I spoke with Kylie to find out more about the role nurses play in patient engagement and how they are helping to humanise healthcare for the betterment of all patients.


What role do nurses play in patient engagement?


“Aside from being technically competent” Kylie Ward says. “What makes the biggest difference in patient engagement is not the head stuff. It’s the heart stuff. It’s how we listen, how we care, how we connect, and the humanness of what we do.


“Nurses are knowledge workers, we are highly skilled and proficient. Patients expect a skilled workforce when they attend a practice. However, it is the humanness nurses show that leaves the most important memory. So the expectation for nurses is really that we humanise the health system and set things up so people feel they can talk to us.


“I’ve been a judge on many state and national nursing and public health award programs and what I see put forward consistently is that it’s not about how much we know, it’s about how we make people feel. It’s the attributes more than the skills and it really is about active listening, showing compassion and kindness, sitting holding a hand, laughing, crying, really understanding what somebody is going through and taking the time with patients that leaves people feeling engaged and valued.


“Sit in on any waiting room in any GP practice for long enough with nurses and you’ll see what happens. The nurses will engage with the kids and their families; telling them stories and listening to them, entertaining them. Alleviating fears is very important in a nurse’s role, because anxiety is not good when receiving treatment.


“I’ve worked in environments where nurses sing to patients and it’s just beautiful to watch. Especially someone with dementia that you’re not getting a lot of response from. To sing a song they can join in that takes them back to a period of time is remarkable.


“I’ve even sang a French song in a nursing home to a French resident. I didn’t even know what the words meant but I sang often to calm her or to get her to take her medications. The same is true for kids. Nurses play a very important role in making sure the clinical environment is not too scary and distressing for children.


How can nurses provide even better patient engagement?


“The most precious resource for a nurse is time. Just leave them alone for a few minutes to sit with a patient. It’s the most satisfying thing for a nurse and for a patient. In terms of the best thing a nurse can do for themself, it would be to take care of themself. It’s really important to exercise, to practice mindfulness, to meditate, to eat well. Because you cannot give what you do not have.


“If we’re burnt out, or unwell, or turning up to work sick, or running on empty, it only takes one little thing to trigger a bad response in oneself. So, for me, the most important advice I would give to nurses is to maintain balance.


“And balance doesn’t mean work 8 hours, play 8 hours and sleep 8 hours. It means you make sure you’re in check with who you are and your emotional wellbeing so that you can give. When we are able to do this we’re able to centre ourselves and quieten the external noise so that we can focus on the person that is right there in front of us, because patients deserve our undivided attention.”


For Hugh, this was more than clear. It was a nurse’s undivided attention that got him through what he described as one of the most challenging times of his life. It wasn’t a medical practitioner who had all the answers who helped. It was someone who had the time to simply sit and talk and listen. Someone who could take his mind off things and share a story that helped alleviate the pain. It was a nurse who humanised his perception of healthcare.

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