Career advice

Vulnerable patients: look beyond the obvious

Patients may want to hide frailties or fears, so adopt a curious attitude towards those in your care

Patients may want to hide frailties or fears, so adopt a curious attitude towards those in your care

Picture: iStock

An older member of my family recently fell victim to a costly online scam.

This is someone I have always considered to be strong, intelligent and wise, so I was shocked that he had been deceived in such a way. 

In addition to the obvious financial worries the situation created, it saddened me to realise that, beneath the tough outer layers he presents to the world, this relative is in fact very vulnerable.

Was his age a factor, or is it more realistic to think that none of us are immune to vulnerability? 

What does ‘vulnerable’ look like?

All healthcare professionals are bound by legislation to do their utmost to protect those in their care. They are trained to be alert to patients who may be classed as vulnerable and put safeguarding measures in place to keep them free from harm.

But surely vulnerability isn’t just restricted to frameworks and regulations? If you consider the dictionary definition of vulnerable – ‘able to be easily physically, emotionally, or mentally hurt, influenced, or attacked’ – it is clear that vulnerability is not a static thing. 

Most of us will have times in our lives when we are particularly vulnerable. For many, ill health, either your own or that of a loved one, will rank highly on a list of stressors most likely to challenge your coping strategies.

The ward as an alien setting

As a nurse, it can help to be mindful that all patients and relatives – regardless of their age, diagnosis or legal status – have the potential to be vulnerable.

Although you may know your hospital like the back of your hand, remember that for most patients and their family members it is an alien setting. 

Some people may feel safe in the protected ward environment, but for others it can heighten existing physical or emotional vulnerabilities. Patients may also go to great lengths to hide their vulnerability for fear they will be considered weak. 

They may laugh and joke with staff and other patients, or always insist ‘I’m fine.’ As a nurse, you therefore need to be skilled at seeing what’s hidden beneath the surface. 

Look beyond labels

In an ideal world you would have plenty of time to get to know the likes, dislikes and fears of all your patients, yet time constraints and lack of resources often don’t allow for this in reality. 

But you have a professional duty to treat all patients as individuals, so look beyond restrictive labels and adopt a curious attitude about the person in front of you.

Regardless of where you are in your career, you can still learn from the powerful poem See Me, where an elderly woman recites the milestones of her life and urges staff to ‘open your eyes, nurses, open and see. Not a crabby old woman, look closer, nurses – see me’.

Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance writer and life/health coach

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