Nurse interpreters needed to guide patients

David Haslam says that patients should learn to stand up for themselves better. But even as a young nurse working on a surgical ward I was always impressed by the stoicism and courage that ordinary people showed in difficult circumstances.

It’s worth remembering how tough it is to be a patient. There is the stress of mental and physical deterioration to cope with, never mind the pain and fear not only of the condition but also of the treatment.

And there is the effect of the uncertainty that the health system inevitably creates. The endless waiting, the merry-go-round of healthcare professionals and, sometimes hardest of all, the information that is meant to help but that can be so hard to put into context – the loss of control you experience can be overwhelming, even soul-destroying.

You see the effect in the bemused expressions of older people sitting for hours in waiting rooms. You also see it in the faces of relatives waiting on hospital wards for their relative’s analgesia to arrive.

The impact is also obvious in people undergoing investigation for undiagnosed conditions. For some people, that particular trauma never ends. My mum is one example. She spent years being investigated for a condition that even now she, a highly intelligent, former professional, does not understand.

Recently, another strong, intelligent relative embarked on a course of treatment within the NHS and, before long, he and his wife found that they were struggling to make sense of the information they were given.

Perhaps a named nurse would help in such cases by guiding people through the NHS. By acting as a named contact, nurses could provide continuity of care and the individualised interpretation information that people need.

It transpires that my relative has a named nurse. He just didn’t know he did – and there was certainly no rush for that professional to identify themselves.

As an ex-nurse, I find many of the lofty, official documents and policies that are produced for the NHS inspiring, but as a patient I find it hard to marry up these virtues with the reality of treatment and care.

The 6Cs are one case in point. It is admirable that compassion is to be put at the heart of patient care. But do we understand exactly what is meant by the word compassion?

Realistically, not all the mental and physical problems that people face when undergoing treatment are going to be fixable. But sometimes half the battle, from the patient’s point of view, is for their experience to be understood. And that means accepting the reality of the patient’s experience, easier though it might be to turn away from the pain, fear and confusion that so often typify the patient journey.

Compassion is not a ‘soft’ and ‘fluffy’ extra; it is demanding, painful and skilled work. Many nurses and other healthcare professionals get it right, yet it is undeniable that there are also many failures.

Is the nursing profession finding the right answers? I don’t pretend to know, but in my experience more recognition of the disempowering and frightening effects that health care often has on patients would be welcome.

About the author

Ed Rowe trained at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, London, in the late 1980s and practised in general surgery. He now works as a medical copy editor and a stay-at-home dad.