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Fear Factors: Overcoming patient fears

Sometimes to treat a patient’s illness we must first treat their fears. Patient fears range from the fear of needles to the fear of side effects of certain medication to the fear of death. As a healthcare professional you know that often these fears are very real … but how can they be helped?In a recent study of 400 cancer patients, it was found that when patients expressed concerns and negative emotions, medical staff responded empathetically only 22 percent of the time and these concerns often went unrecognized or unaddressed entirely.

Researcher Kathryn Pollak, Ph.D., of Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, says the findings illustrate the need for teaching medical staff better communication skills.

“We know that [doctors] care deeply for their patients,” said Pollak. “They wouldn’t be in the field if they weren’t caring people. But they often don’t verbalize their feelings to their patients.”

Here are five insights that will help open these lines of communication to offer patients truly comprehensive care—care that addresses their physical and emotional needs:

  1. Listen
    Patient fears aren’t always voiced outright or fears may be veiled in humor, sarcasm or even anger. Being attuned to emotions can only further help in addressing fears and in listening to patients when they talk to you—in the waiting room or in the exam room—pay careful attention to statements that could be perceived as fear and ask questions to further determine what a patient is afraid of. It’s equally important to be aware of body language and to listen to what is not being said, too, and discuss these cues with the patient. No one can help a patient overcome fear if no one knows what the fear is or that it’s there to begin with. Expressive props like Mood Cubes will help during conversation. For young patients, verbalizing fears may be difficult. Offer them a pack of Crayons and a pad of paper to express their fears in a drawing for you.
  2. Make a personal connection
    We’ve all felt fear before—remind patients of this. Empathize with fearful patients by sharing similar fears and how you were able to overcome them. Relating personal experiences in this way can help express compassion—a trait that is necessary to build trust and subsequently overcome fear.
  3. Don’t discount fears
    Be careful not to minimize or discount fears. While fears may be irrational or off-base, they are still fears, nonetheless. Telling someone “you’re worrying about nothing” won’t help the situation. Instead, acknowledge fears and seek ways to help patients overcome them. Instead say something like “I know you’re afraid of x, but consider y and z.”
  4. Explain things
    Respond to fears (and prevent them) by thoroughly explaining procedures, processes and side effects. If a patient looks like they don’t understand something, expresses confusion or further expresses fear, try to clarify when possible. Avoid medical terms and jargon—communicate in plain English what is going to happen and what you are going to do to help them. Gather resources or literature that can help further explain things to a patient and compile these in an organized portfolio for the patient to take home and look over.
  5. Help them cope
    When you’ve done what you can to listen and explain the situation, and the patient is still fearful, continue to offer support by being there to help them cope. Offer a Stress Ball to hang on to while the patient waits for test results or consider a Teddy Bear or Fleece Throw to snuggle in the exam or surgery prep room. Reward patients who overcome fears with giveaways sure to make patients of any age smile, like Rally Towels or a Root-N-Toot Horn.

When patients fears can be addressed, every member of the healthcare team will do their jobs better and the patients will feel better! Promote better communication in your healthcare organization to promote the best possible care for all who walk through your doors.

Boyles, By Salynn. “Cancer Docs Often Miss Patient Fears.WebMD – Better Information. Better Health. Web. 22 Apr. 2010.



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