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January 29, 2014 Readers Write 2 Comments

Once a Nurse, Always a Nurse
By Lisa Cannon

1-29-2014 1-11-30 PM

We all wear various hats in our lives, but some experiences are never forgotten. Through the years, I’ve been the road warrior healthcare consultant and then moved to positions supporting consulting operations. Yet nothing remains in my heart more than my early days as a nurse. I never knew how much I would appreciate having been a nurse until my mom’s health took a sizeable downward turn last year.

My mom’s chronic cardiac condition resulted in several hospital visits and treatment by various specialists in her last months. At home, coordinating her care among her medical team was no easy task. Keeping her out of a nursing home meant visits from home health nurses, nurse aides, and multiple therapists. This was a great deal of care synchronization for my aging father to deal with, but he welcomed it, knowing the alternative. He organized her medications and had everything written down. Thanks to my nursing background, I trained him in the art of taking her blood pressure, doing daily glucose checks, and measuring her oxygen saturation.

I was constantly running cover on what was being prescribed for Mom and monitoring how Dad was delivering the recommendations. Sadly, we hit an issue that in hindsight makes me question if it was the action that ultimately caused her death. Could information technology (IT) have made a difference? Perhaps. Maybe the application of common sense and additional family education could have.

Mom’s renal specialist ordered a diuretic water-releasing medication to be given once a day for seven days with a quantity prescribed of 14. The discrepancy between the dose and the quantity wasn’t realized immediately. After Mom fell twice, at a subsequent visit to her primary care physician, my dad indicated he was still giving this medication. That’s when we realized we had a serious issue. This was Day 13, well past the seven-day mark. Mom had received the medication for almost a full week more than had been intended. We realized it was significantly lowering her blood pressure.

I questioned the pharmacy that filled the prescription. They indicated they just did what the physician had written. I was outraged. Could they have provided some family education and made that clear? Since there were still pills in the bottle, Dad merely was continuing to give the medicine. Could a computer system combined with standard operating procedures prompt alerting of education requirements for a time-limited dosing medication helped? I think so.

After subsequent falls, my mom ultimately was admitted to the hospital, where a CT scan showed she had developed a massive brain hemorrhage. Dad and I were told that the combination of falls and blood-thinning medication resulted in a weakened blood vessel in her brain, which finally gave out.

Afterwards, when the renal specialist was asked why the prescription was written the way it was, she remarked that it was so we wouldn’t have to return to the office should we have needed to continue it. In her mind, she was doing us a favor.

This experience made me wonder how patients without involved family members manage their medical care journey as their health deteriorates. While I may have forgotten all of the details of the ICU setting I spent so much time in years ago, I am very thankful for the skills I learned and my ability to recognize the situation regarding the healthcare needs that come to the surface.

Having witnessed firsthand patients struggling with understanding their care requirements, it reiterates to me the imperative that health professionals do their part in educating patients and their families and communicating specifics. Training my dad to take blood pressure and glucose checks was possible (and these days, essential). His recognizing a perfect storm of low blood pressure, over diuresis, and blood-thinning medicines was not.

As healthcare IT professionals, we can’t forget that the role of IT is to supplement common sense and standard operating procedures, not to replace it. There is no fail-proof means to ensure mistakes don’t occur, even with the best of intentions and systems. We must remember that the people, process, and technology changes we’re making impact real people every day. Are we making healthcare better? We must –our families are counting on us. 

Lisa Cannon is director of resource management for Aspen Advisors of Pittsburgh, PA.

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