Preparing Nurses for Opioid-Addicted Patients
By Jennifer David, RN, BSN, MHA
Jennifer David, RN, BSN, MHA is vice-president of clinical operations for Avant Healthcare Professionals of Casselberry, FL.
President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency. As a reaction to this announcement, Intermountain Healthcare, a Utah-based hospital chain, pledged to decrease opioid prescriptions by 40 percent in 2018.
Making a commitment to addressing the crisis is a crucial first step. However, only addressing the patient-use side is not a holistic approach to the problem.
The mental health of the nurses and doctors who care for overdosed patients are not considered in the opioid equation, yet every day they feel the magnitude of the epidemic and they are left alone to manage their pain. Ultimately, they may leave their job or the profession altogether without support in facing this problem.
Nurses are the frontline warriors in this epidemic. Several times each day, they’re responding to the screams of withdrawal, managing the inherent chaos of addiction, and dealing with family members who demand an immediate solution. For many patients, it’s the second, third or tenth time to the emergency department for the same problem. Families are desperate, angry, and looking for someone to blame, often defaulting to the nurse.
I’ve had nurses from hospitals around the country explain that they feel that they’re enabling drug-addicted patients by administering pain medications. However, “managing pain” is an important aspect of HCAHPS. Nurses are conflicted between caring for a patient and adding to the problem. This conflict can lead to anger, stress, and frustration among nurse staff, and in some cases, could drive nurses to quit.
Some hospitals have made steps in protecting nurses against these patients with a patient code of conduct, which states that violence and verbal abuse against staff will not be tolerated. A large hospital in New York has their patient code of conduct displayed throughout their hallways and another facility in Missouri strictly enforces that their staff will not be disrespected by patients. When these rules are up against patient discretion on HCAHPS scores, they become harder to enforce.
The best thing hospital leadership can do is to mentally prepare nurses to care for these difficult patients. This will also reduce staff turnover and improve employee communication.
The first place to start is to recognize the potential of a problem. I make personal visits to our nurses on assignment and always ask them how they are dealing with opioid-addicted patients. It is not always easy or possible to give individual attention to every nurse on staff. However, it is important to identify who is having issues. Surveying the nurse team to ask if they feel respected at all levels and supported in their job challenges is a great strategy to begin with.
Once honest communication begins, explore what support nurses want and need, then put a plan together. It should include a healthy dose of continuous learning intended to help build understanding and empathy for patients’ needs. Seeing how our nurses were affected, we now incorporate training on how to care for drug-addicted patients in our curriculum as well as provide consistent follow up while nurses are on assignment. We want to pre-expose them for what they might face and be there for them when they face it.
There will likely be multiple tiers of support needed, varying from the occasional discussions about a particularly challenging patient to more intense, personalized support from the human resources department. Everyone has different experiences and belief systems about addiction, so allow for that. One of the hardest things to address is that opioid-addicted patients should not be discriminated against.
Not all days are the same when dealing with these patients, and some days might be especially challenging. Consistent follow up is necessary to maintain a healthy staff and also allows for positive patient experiences. If nurses feel that their employer constantly empathizes with them, they will feel the support they need when caring for such patients.