Supporting Palliative Care Patients With Communication Technology

Supporting palliative care patients is deeply rewarding, but it also comes with challenges.

Nurses and personal support workers (PSWs) in the field must provide compassionate support in the final stages of life. As a result, they need to earn the trust of their patients quickly.

Relationship building and careful coordination are critical. But caregivers can’t always be there for patients. Care teams aren’t always able to sync up their schedules and meet in person. And family members often have trouble connecting with their ill loved ones – and those who provide their loved ones with care.

By instantly connecting circles of care, communication technology can help. Using it correctly can ensure that patients never have to be alone.

But many nurses and PSWs believe there’s a dark side to using digital tools, apps, and platforms in their caregiving. They worry that communicating through technology distances them from their patients.

In this post, we’ll explore the benefits – and potential drawbacks – of connecting with palliative care patients in the digital realm.

Common Concerns

Nurses and PSWs who work in palliative care feel strong connections to their patients. How could they not? Near the end of life, people are often at their most vulnerable. They need a special type of support.

In many cases, supporting a patient means helping her achieve a sense of closure. She may need help completing important tasks, or saying goodbye to family and friends in her own way. However a caregiver provides help, he knows that listening is a major key to success.

Every caregiver should be a good listener. If you don’t understand a patient’s needs, how can you tend to them? How can you do everything within your power to improve physical comfort and psychological wellbeing?

When it comes to supporting palliative care patients, the process of listening, interpreting, and responding compassionately are extremely important.

It’s not surprising that the nurses and PSWs who provide this type of care see direct communication as vital. For many, the idea of connecting with patients using technology doesn’t sit well.

Can you really have a meaningful conversation with someone when you aren’t in the same room? Can you read, interpret, and respond to another person’s facial expressions and physical gestures?

Listening is important, but it’s not the only element of care that nurses and PSWs worry about losing with the rise of communication technology. Touch is critical. If you’re a caregiver, you know just how powerful it can be.

From holding a hand to helping with the activities of daily life, touching a patient is a supportive gesture. The measure of comfort it brings can be significant.

There are situations when technology can be an obstacle to forming meaningful relationships. But as one piece of a larger compassionate communication strategy, it strengthens connections and improves patient support.

The Current (and Future) Role of Technology

There are, of course, many different types of health care technology. Some are medically necessary. Some vastly improve physical comfort. But what about those designed to aid in relationship building? Are they worth the time and energy investment?

In palliative care, asking these questions is important. When patients have limited time to live, caregivers need to find the right answers – quickly. If the time to adopt a solution is lengthy, or the solution comes with potential downsides, careful consideration is critical.

So it’s understandable that many professional caregivers with palliative care patients are wary of communication technology. But consider the contributions that other technologies have made to the field.

Many assistive technologies – such as personal alarms and devices that with wander detection – can provide security for patients and peace of mind for family caregivers.

Technology designed for comfortable seating and mobility can also be immensely helpful for some palliative care patients. For example, many people with progressive diseases, such as ALS, have very specific power chair needs.

But when it comes to palliative care, information technology (IT) is often overlooked. It shouldn’t be. Studies show that patients and family caregivers who seek support through web-based services experience greater satisfaction with, and access to, care.

Forums where patients and caregivers can pose questions to others dealing with terminal illness can provide comfort and useful information.

But we would argue that videoconferencing has the greatest potential to satisfy patient needs for connection. It allows those receiving care to speak face-to-face with hospice professionals in situations where they otherwise couldn’t.

When and How Videoconferencing Helps

Often, in-person conversations just aren’t feasible. For example, when patients live at home, getting in contact with medical professionals can be a challenge.

There are also times when patients – even those living in hospice – want to be alone. For some, there are days when seeing people (or people who aren’t family members) feels like a burden.

Videoconferencing also makes it simpler for interdisciplinary care teams to meet – and encourages patient and family participation in these meetings. Remember: in the last stages of life, making the right decisions is critical.

Real-time video ensures that the patient and her attendant family members are central to the decision making process. At the same time, it facilitates productive discussions with experts.

These represent a handful of the situations where videoconferencing can help. In short, the right digital app makes it easy for palliative care patients to contact anyone within their circles of care. They can relay and receive information efficiently, or receive immediate emotional support through face-to-face conversation.

Part of supporting palliative care patients is being there when they need it most. Whenever possible, empower them to make that choice, and to reach out when they need an instant connection.

There are certain functions that digital technologies will never fulfill. The ability to bring comfort through physical touch is one of them. For this reason, it’s important to think of communication technology as a tool that can improve upon well-balanced care.

It’s About Building Relationships

Supporting palliative care patients is largely intuitive. It’s our capacity for empathy that guides us when we alleviate the pain of others. Nurses and PSWs who work with palliative care patients should trust these instincts when using technology to communicate.

Consider the needs of the patient. How much support does he require? Does he live alone? And given his general condition, preferences, and temperament, what form should that support take?

Caregivers may choose to use communication technology less or more often depending on the answers to these questions. Here are some others you might want to consider.

Does the patient seem worried about being able to reach her doctors, paid caregivers, or family members? If so, she might be comforted by a digital platform or tool that allows her to connect instantly with anyone in her circle of care. Touch-screen tablets can accommodate most people with mobility and cognitive issues, as well as those who aren’t tech savvy.

Is she struggling with a sense that she’s lost control? If so, she might benefit from an app that encourages her to participate in her own care. For example, some technologies provide on-demand access to care plans. They allow patients to see changes made by the medical and caregiving professionals who treat them – in real time.

Is her family actively involved in her care? If the answer is yes, you might consider using an app or tool that makes it easy to loop family caregivers into relevant conversations.

Supporting palliative care patients is about alleviating pain and improving quality of life. It goes without saying that patient-centred care is crucial. Professional caregivers rarely forget this fact.

The most helpful technologies are intuitive and easy to use. When you adopt a new tool or app, all you should have to remember is your patient-centred principles.

Supporting Palliative Care Patients – with Help

You know what’s best for your palliative care patients. You know what they need in the last stages of life. More often than not, it’s human connection and the support to do things on their own terms.

Many nurses and PSWs see communication technology as a threat to these goals. How can you provide attentive, compassionate care from a distance? And what about the patient who needs meaningful one-on-one conversation?

Videoconferencing apps and other digital communication tools aren’t substitutes for relationship-building activities. But they can make great supplements. When it comes to supporting palliative care patients, the digital world can provide much-needed aid for caregivers.

Feature image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski

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