Throughout my career one thing has been consistently true. That is that wherever I was working and regardless of the role I have been an educator. I imagine the blog to a great extent is related to my interest in this aspect of my work. In the last few years much has been said about care by parents whether it be a general approach for family centred care or in formalized approaches such as FiCare which has also been formally studied in the research setting. When we speak of family centred care, one thing that I am constantly reminded of is that the focus of all of our efforts must be on the family and the patient. As I said recently to a colleague when discussing what was presented as a difficult discussion with another colleague due to a disagreement about the direction of management, when you put the patient first the discussion really isn’t difficult at all. It’s not about you or a colleagues ego but about the patient and if the management is not up to par then change direction and worry about managing egos later.
What We Know And What They Know
Another aspect that needs to be addressed is the difference in power that we have through knowledge. I am not talking about us exerting authority over families but from the perspective of us having the knowledge from years of experience in the field as to what is significant and what is not in terms of events in the NICU. The evidence for example with respect to neurodevelopmental outcome from apnea and bradycardia should give us reason to be optimistic the majority of the time. While in Edmonton I learned a great deal from one of my colleagues who was the lead author in a paper entitled Early childhood neurodevelopment in very low birth weight infants with predischarge apnea. While frequent apnea may be associated with mild motor impairments in their paper, the predictive value of these predischarge recordings is very limited when you take away those kids without severe IVH. I think about all of the parents we see who have their eyes glued to the monitors while they attend at the bedside and what they must be thinking. To us it is just a matter of time but I wonder for them how agonizing a time it really is! It isn’t just those infants who are nearing discharge and having apnea either as the CAP study at 5 years of age showed no difference in survival without disability in those infants who received caffeine vs those who did not. More frequent events may not be that detrimental after all. I am not suggesting we not treat patients as one never knows where the threshold lies to cause injury but these preemies are certainly made of some tough stuff.
Identifying Stress and Preparing Parents For it
The first step in dealing with this issue is to know it is there. Recognizing this, Melnyk and others performed an educational intervention targeting behaviour of families in their study Reducing premature infants’ length of stay and improving parents’ mental health outcomes with the Creating Opportunities for Parent Empowerment (COPE) neonatal intensive care unit program: a randomized, controlled trial. The group of parents who went through the program had better mental health outcomes compared to the control groups. The issue here and really is at the crux of the goal in writing all of this is that the stress that parents feel may not be overtly present. The squeaky wheel as the saying goes gets the grease and the parents that are demonstrating signs of poor coping are the first to draw the referrals to social work or engage in a deeper conversation with nursing at the bedside. All parents experience stress at least to a certain degree and it is all of our jobs to tease it out. On the other hand employing standardized approaches such as the COPE program for all parents might be another way of helping those who are in need but not clearly wearing a sign on their foreheads that say “help me”.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Reassurance
So we know that much of what we see on the monitors will not lead to long term harm, transient central cyanosis during feeds will not damage the brain and apnea of prematurity is a distinct entity from SIDS. The parents on the other hand commonly make these links and additionally in case no one has mentioned it to you, those babies with TTN may one day develop asthma and those with hypoglycemia may have diabetes (we know both not to be true but I have been asked about this many times). This is why I believe it is our duty to explain why we are not worried about things that come up in the unit. Saying “don’t worry” or “that is normal preterm behaviour” may not be enough. Ask a parent what it is they are worried about and you may be surprised to find out the links that they have made in their heads, some of which may be valid but some completely false. I am not meaning to trivialize their concerns but rather validate them as real worries. If we have the knowledge and it is power as I said before then shouldn’t we use that power to help reduce their stress?
Engaging Families Can Reap Huge Dividends
The movement towards family centred care and more specifically care by parent will have a dramatic impact on this issue. As more and more centres move to engaging families to be part of rounds and not just listen and then ask questions but to take some degree of control and provide some of the reporting stress will be reduced. It is only logical. The more a family comes to understand what is significant and what is not in terms of reporting concerns the more confident they will be. Moreover, spending more time at the bedside leads to more skin to skin care and with that shorter hospital stays due to better cardiorespiratory stability. We aren’t there yet but we are headed in the right direction. In the meantime, take the time to ask a simple question “what are you worried about” to parents no matter how confident and strong they appear and you may find yourself with an opportunity to harness the power of education you have a make a real difference to a family in need.