For new nurses—or even seasoned ones—connecting with patients can sometimes be challenging. Maybe the patient is depressed or even angry. Your first impulse might be to just get the interaction over with, but Patti Thompson advises against that. Instead, she suggests the opposite.
Thompson is a nurse at Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Bakersfield in California. She’s served in her current role for nearly three years, but she’s been a nurse for over 35. She said making connections with your patients is key to their success and yours as a nurse.
“Just spend some time with them,” she said. “Get past just giving them food, pills and charting. Yes, that’s important, but take time to talk with them and let them know they are loved and being cared for well.”
Thompson has trained and mentored many nurses in her career. The following are her top tips for making meaningful connections with all your patients—even the more challenging ones.
Get to Know Your Patients
This means learning more about your patients than the medical condition that placed them in your care. Thompson said it means finding out about their background and what they enjoyed doing before their illness or injury.
Understanding your patient’s backstory can help you find common ground, and it also shows the person that you care, she added.
“You need to let them know that they have a friend,” Thompson said. “Learn about their lives and who they were before this. In inpatient rehabilitation, we work mainly with elderly patients. They are history books with legs. If you can start to appreciate that, you can really learn some things.”
Some basic get-to-know-you questions could include:
- Where are you from?
- What do you or did you do for a living?
- What are you looking forward to most after leaving the hospital?
- Do you have children/grandchildren and/or pets?
Nursing Careers at Encompass Health
If you're a nurse who enjoys building relationships with patients, joining Encompass Health may be the right fit for you. Learn more about rehabilitation nursing at Encompass HealthLearn More
Think Outside the Box
Thompson is always looking for personal ways to help lift her patients’ spirits. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all hospitals were closed to visitors, she planned a surprise anniversary celebration for one of her patients.
“We need to give them hope and things to look forward to, so they’re not just focusing on the things they’re missing when they’re with us,” she said. “I had a stroke patient during the pandemic when we were still on lockdown who was down because she wasn’t going to be able to spend her 50th wedding anniversary with her husband.”
Thompson called the patient’s husband, and had him bring her favorite meal. She and other staff members set up tables—one inside by the window, and the other just outside—allowing the couple to celebrate together. “It was so much fun,” Thompson recalled. “They were so excited, and we were able to get pictures for them.”
Knowing important dates and life moments of your patients and celebrating them with them gives them encouragement and makes them feel like a person again, not just a patient, Thompson said.
Unless you have been in your patient’s same situation, you do not know what they are going through, but that doesn’t mean you can’t empathize with them.
Thompson said sometimes a gentle pat on the hand or shoulder is a good way of making a human connection with patients, and it’s often that simple touch that they need when they are feeling down or discouraged.
“I use touch because to me, it shows that I care,” she said. “So many are afraid to touch, but I think it shows compassion, and that you’re present and there for them.”
Listen and Let Them Vent
Some patients just need to talk, and often it’s not a family member they want to talk to. Thompson said it’s important to hear your patient out. Sit with them at eye level, and don’t act rushed or impatient.
If your patient is angry or frustrated, sometimes the best thing to do, Thompson said, is to let them talk it out, but set boundaries. If you feel threatened or unsafe, calmly leave the room and give the patient time to calm down or call for assistance.
“I had one patient once who would get mad and throw things,” she recalled. “I had to set boundaries with him. He was a young patient, and I became like a mother figure to him. You have to love with firmness. It depends on the patient. Sometimes you do just have to remove yourself from the situation.”
Humor can lighten the mood, and as the saying goes, “laughter is the best medicine.” Thompson has taken that to heart during her years as a nurse.
“It’s OK to be goofy and have fun with them,” she said. “By lifting the mood, you lift their spirits and give them hope, so laugh with them. Make them feel like they are more than a patient, and that they have a past and present, and they are going to have a future.”