Sunday, May 3, 2015

If I Could Wave a Magic Wand...

By E’Louise Ondash, RN

Someone asked me recently how I would change health care in this country if I could wave a magic wand and make it happen. I had to think a bit, but it didn’t take me long to come up with a list. Admittedly, some of these ideas would face a lot of bureaucracy, red tape and resistance, but remember -- I have a magic wand.

Here is my wish list:

1. Make all the tobacco products in the world disappear. Using tobacco products harms every organ in the body and those who are nearby. Cigarettes and other tobacco products cause more than 480,000 deaths a year in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And it isn’t just the deaths that cost us financially and emotionally. Smokers generally suffer a long time with costly chronic problems; if all that was avoided, the money could be spent on preventive health education and prenatal care.

2. Make sodas, energy drinks and all those nothing-but-sugar beverages that we over-consume disappear, too. They contribute greatly to this country’s obesity problem, which brings its own set of costly illnesses.

3. Eliminate for-profit health insurance companies. Why should 20 cents of every premium dollar go to CEOs and stockholders when that money could and should be used for patient care, preventive care and new technologies? These funds could better the lives of everyone, especially the chronically ill. 4. Build and create more sidewalks, walking trails, bike lanes and walkable communities.

5. Teach everyone how to integrate regular exercise into their lives, including giving physical education a higher priority in schools. Put more emphasis on individual sports and less on team sports, and teach the joy of walking. Begin these lessons in kindergarten or even sooner.

6. Make dental care a normal part of health care coverage. Our dental health is connected to other body systems and an important component in our overall health.

7. Make all medical records internet-based (and super-secure, of course) so they are easily accessible by patients and physicians. This would go a long way to cutting confusion and costly duplication.

8. Assign all those with chronic and complicated health problems to a health care team – one consisting of doctors, nurses, social workers and all those paramedical professionals that it takes to serve and care for those with long-term illnesses.

9. Teach more physicians and nurses about palliative care and make it more available than it is now.

10. Provide financial help to nurses who want to pursue bachelor degrees and beyond.

11. Pay nurse-educators well to teach the new crop of degree-bound nurses.

12. Charge a fair price for tests, procedures, surgery, medications and medical equipment, disclose those prices and charge everyone the same.

That’s my list. What would you change about health care in this country?

Tell us about it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Are We Halfway There Yet?

By E’Louise Ondash, RN

Though there is still some debate about whether a nurse should have at minimum a bachelor's degree, the objections are getting fewer and quieter.

This debate about nursing education is not new. It’s been ongoing for more than 100years. It began with Florence Nightingale, who argued for a university-educated nurse whose learning would be independent of the hospitals. Hospitals, however, argued for a nurse-apprenticeship education (the word “training” was most often used) because – well, they needed the workforce.

And so through the years the debate has endured, and several pathways to earning an RN have developed. But in 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) issued a report that probably will put the nail in the coffin of the hospital-based education system – and maybe the associate’s degree as a stopping point.  The report called for a defined increase in the number of nurses with BSNs, MSNs, PhDs and DNPs by the year 2020.

Suddenly (or so it seems), we are halfway to the finish line. It’s already been five years since IOM’s “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health" report. What has the profession accomplished and how far do we have yet to go?

Nurses everywhere are working hard to raise their educational and professional status by enrolling in degree programs. Although the number of employed nurses who have BSNs increased by only 2 percent from 2010 to 2013, the numbers enrolled in RN-to-BSN programs jumped from about 77,000 to 130,300, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. (Certainly the growth of online RN-to-BSN programs has made earning a BSN a more attainable goal, especially for travel nurses.)

The increased numbers of those seeking bachelor’s degrees may have something to do with the ever-increasing numbers of medical institutions that require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree as a condition of employment. Between 2011 and 2013, that number went from 9 percent to 19 percent of hospitals, and that number continues to grow.

There is another trend that seems to be growing; BSN programs are beginning to appear in community colleges (one just a few miles from me), making the cost of earning a degree more reasonable. Surely this will help to reach the 2020 goal of a workforce in which 80 percent of the nurses have bachelor's degrees.

The IOM’s report also included goals for increasing the number of advanced-degree nurses.

In 2013, nurses with a doctorate numbered only 3.6% of the workforce, but experts believe this number will increase, now that nurses can earn a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). Previously, there were only PhD programs; today, there are almost three times the number of nurses in DNP programs compared to PhD programs.

The goals set by IOM’s report might be a bit ambitious,  but nurses may continue to step it up as they have in the past.

If you are working toward a degree, why did you decide to pursue further education and how is it going?

Tell us about it. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Adequate Nurse Staffing Means Reduced Readmissions

By E’Louise Ondash, RN

I spent a few hours in a local emergency room recently, and with only curtains dividing the cubicles, it was difficult to ignore the doctor–patient conversation happening only a few feet away.

An elderly, debilitated woman had come to the ER via ambulance and her caretaker was explaining to the doctor that the woman had been discharged from the hospital only five days before. The woman wasn’t capable of caring for herself and it had been a couple of days after discharge before her caretaker arrived at the home. Since her discharge, the patient’s condition had deteriorated significantly. The caretaker told the doctor that the patient’s breathing had become more difficult, and there also was some confusion about her multiple medications.

I couldn’t help wondering how this woman got out the hospital door without the assurance that there would be someone to care for her, and without an explicit discharge plan. I also wondered how often this scene is repeated in hospital ERs throughout the country.

Medicare doesn’t like it either.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) spends $15 billion annually on what it calls “preventable readmissions” and is looking at ways to save money while improving patient care. One of the ways is to penalize hospitals for excess readmissions within 30 days after discharge by withholding 1 percent of payments. As of October 2012, CMS says it has saved $280 million with this policy.

Nurses know that sending patients on their way correctly requires a lot of time, attention to detail and planning – things that are nearly impossible if staffing is inadequate. A recent study confirms this.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, Institute of Health Economics, and the Wharton School of Business compared more than 1,400 hospitals with high and low staffing levels. They found that higher staffing levels were associated with a better chance of avoiding the penalties associated with excessive readmission rates. The study was published in the October 2014 issue of Health Affairs.

This isn’t a surprise to nurses. We are keenly aware that discharge planning has become more complicated, especially since patients today are older and have more problems – both medical and social. There are many things to consider when trying to coordinate family, caretakers, social workers, visiting nurses, skilled nursing facilities, pharmacies, therapists and more. The bottom line is that it takes adequate staff to do the job right and avoid readmissions.

Does your hospital have adequate nurse staffing to ensure each patient receives proper discharge planning? What measures have you or your co-workers implemented to reduce readmissions? Tell us about it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Overwhelmed With Too Much Information? Ask the Public for Help

By E’Louise Ondash, RN

Some in the scientific community have finally said it: There is too much information out there to handle – even for us.

I’ve felt overwhelmed more than once when doing internet searches, but I figured it was just me. Therefore, I didn’t expect this pronouncement to come from seasoned researchers. But scientists at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, charged with finding cures for rare diseases, finally admitted that they’ve reached the point at which the information has overwhelmed them and that they worry about what they are missing.

According to one of the experts, there are about a million articles on biomedicine alone that are published each year, and no individual can possibly read them all. So the researchers are turning to the public for help. They are asking “citizen scientists” to share their findings with them on certain topics. Having all those extra pairs of eyes, the experts reason, will help in supplementing the scientists’ body of knowledge and sorting the good from the useless.

This got me to thinking: Why couldn’t nurses do the same thing?

Nurses aim to provide the best care for their patients via evidence-based practices. They arrive at their conclusions by researching the literature, talking to other nurses, attending conferences and considering patient preferences. What if they included the public in this process?

This might not work in all areas of care, but certainly could help in some. For instance, those who care for the disabled and those with Alzheimer’s disease have much they might contribute to this body of knowledge. Those who are adept at wilderness medicine or work in situations where improvising is a necessary skill must have a wealth of information to offer the medical community. Surely there are parents who have discovered what works when their kids are ill. And certainly there are those who live and work with immigrant and/or ethnic populations who know the secrets to motivating their clients.

These are just of few of the possible areas in which citizen scientists can add to the body of knowledge that nurses need and want. The bottom line is that members of the public have tested ideas and found them to work, but most of these citizen innovators have not shared them directly with medical professionals.

There are already online sites where interest groups share information with each other, but what about a place where non-medical people can share these ideas directly with the nursing community?

While taking and using advice from people other than medical professionals might seem unthinkable to some, chances are that many younger nurses think it’s the natural order of things. We are living in a new age. This new generation of nurses is used to sharing and to turning to the internet to solve problems, so an online place for citizen scientists to share their knowledge with nurses may not seem crazy at all.

Can you think of instances in which you might have benefitted from the findings or experiences of non-nurses? Tell us about it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The 10 Most Important Issues For Today’s Nurses

By E’Louise Ondash, RN

A few decades ago, there weren’t that many job or career options for nurses.
There was generally plenty of work – finding a job was not difficult – but the choices were limited to positions in hospitals, schools, physician offices, visiting nurses and private duty – or you could apply to the airlines. At one time, it was mandatory that flight attendants (then called stewardesses) also were registered nurses.

Except for the break room, cafeteria or occasional conference, there were few forums where nurses could come together to discuss topics of common interest. With no internet, blogs, websites or social networking, many nurses worked mostly in a vacuum.

Today there are innumerable career options for nurses and multiple forums for discussing topics of interest – everything from the casual blog to scientific journals. Because there are so many nursing specialties and career options, many of these forums are directed at the specialties, but are there concerns that are universal?

At least 10, according to the book “The Power of Ten – 2011-2013: Nurse Leaders Address the Profession’s 10 Most Pressing Issues” (published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International; paperback; $24.95).

The authors, 30 nurses from a host of countries, identify the following issues as having importance for all nurses, regardless of specialty or interest:
• Evidence-based practice: Harmful or helpful?
• What impact does technology have on nursing?
• Should a bachelor’s degree be the minimum level of education?
• DNP vs. PhD
• Attaining a seat at the policy table
• Coping with growing ethical demands
• Improving workplace culture
• How do nurse leaders affect the profession?
• Closing the workforce age gap
• How to make the profession as diverse as the population

Critics have written that the authors have approached these hot-button topics “with uncommonly provocative prose, often poking at sacred cows or playing the devil's advocate to get readers to challenge conventional, status quo thinking.”
For instance, one author poses questions about the possible compromise of power that nurses may be experiencing as the result of specialization. Another asks whether the importance of credentials has diminished the significance of actual accomplishments and contributions.

Looking at the list, what issues are most important to you?

Would you add any issues to the list or do you think it is complete?

Tell us about it.

'Still Alice’ - Seeing Alzheimer’s From the Inside

By E’Louise Ondash, RN

Here’s a New Year’s resolution: see the film “Still Alice,” starring Julianne Moore as a college professor who faces a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Just writing the phrase “early-onset Alzheimer’s disease“ brings up deep emotions that make me want to stop right here, and the idea of watching a story about a vibrant woman slowly losing her ability to function is not one that I want to entertain. But as a nurse and a person who knows of so many with the disease, I believe I must see it. We need a reminder that Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of the very old, but that it cuts normal life short for so many in their prime years.

The movie trailer also hints that this story illustrates the deep impact Alzheimer’s has on family and loved ones.

From what I’ve read, Moore extensively researched what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s. The actress attended support groups and spoke with medical experts, researchers and social workers. She underwent testing for the disease, and even spent a lot of time with a woman who developed Alzheimer’s at the age of 46.

“Still Alice” is especially poignant because Moore plays a linguistics professor for whom words are everything, and yet she finds the ability to use them slipping away. “When we were adapting the book, we highlighted language as a kind of index of how far the disease has progressed,” explained co-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer in an interview with the American Film Institute.

The film is based upon a novel of the same name written by neuroscientist Lisa Genova. Critics say that while other productions about Alzheimer’s disease tell the story from the point of view of family and friends, this film develops the story from the victim’s point of view. The camera permits us to see and feel how the disease affects Alice and how her world changes.

“Losing language is an incredibly heartbreaking and frustrating process,” the directors said. “We heard of many different ways that Alzheimer’s patients handle this – ranging from wanting to know everything about the progress of the disease to not even wanting to use the word ‘Alzheimer’s’ themselves.”

While using language as a yardstick is a clear-cut way of measuring and illustrating the devastation of dementia, we must remember that the course of Alzheimer’s is not always so clean and simple. But keeping it simple should help leave a lasting impression on the minds of moviegoers and raise awareness--and that’s a good thing.

The role of Alice’s husband is played by Alec Baldwin; her three grown children are played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish. “Still Alice” is set for release Jan. 16.

The movie is predicted to be a nominee for Oscars in several categories, but even if it wins no awards, it will hopefully remind us of the need for more Alzheimer’s research and promote greater understanding of those who suffer from the disease.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Our Health Care (Non) System is Chaotic; Can Nurses Help?

By E’Louise Ondash, RN

I’ve been thinking about it a long time, and I just don’t see how our health care nonsystem can survive such as it is for the long run. Many have told us this already, but it’s taken me a while to catch up. The costs are absurdly exorbitant and seem to be increasing, and obtaining the right care—never mind for the right price—can be a task that even health care professionals find difficult and confusing.

I’ve had several recent experiences, or frustrating mishaps, with health care and health insurance—and I’m a nurse who has written fairly extensively about consumer medical matters. If this has been challenging for me, how difficult must it be for those who know little about medicine or how to navigate through the nonsystem?

I use the prefix “non” because there is no system.

Rules vary widely among health plans, and to the consumer, it feels like a free-for-all. Even within the same health plan, the rules are inconsistent, and can be viewed as unfair. Some would even call them unethical.

So many people are finding it so difficult that it’s increased the need for the role of nurse-navigators. These navigators are needed to assist patients in getting the care they need and deciphering the complicated rules and regulations, and of course, it’s an extra expense.

Here’s one problem that seems to be a growing trend: patients are being billed for the services of out-of-network physicians who are working for in-network hospitals. Patients who come to these hospitals for care, as dictated by their insurance plans, are discovering only when the bill comes that the doctors who saw them do not accept their insurance.

This has happened twice this past year to me and my family members, and I’ve read about others having a similar experience. For instance, the New York Times recently ran a story about a man in his mid-30s who needed cervical spine surgery and was billed $117,000 by an assistant surgeon. The patient had no knowledge of this assistant surgeon, had no contact with him, and the surgery was performed in a hospital that is covered by surgical residents, who could have assisted for free.

The patient’s insurance company actually paid the assistant surgeon the full fee, much to the chagrin of the patient. (The surgeon is being investigated for “exorbitant” charges.)

As nurses, I’m not sure what we can do to stop the escalation of health care costs beyond what any consumer would do. I do think nurses should answer honestly any questions that patients have about acquiring care or what their options are if patients have choices.

There is no debate that some of the burden of high costs rests with consumers whose lifestyles promote poor health habits that can become chronic conditions. Nurses should do everything they can to help these patients whose unhealthy lifestyles cost us all. Still, there are many who, like the patient who needed cervical surgery, have no control over their health care expenditures.

Nurses also can report any unethical or illegal actions by individuals, institutions or health insurance companies, and write local and federal legislators about escalating costs and the problems they see within the nonsystem.

Have you experienced or seen instances of over-charging or unethical charges for health care? What did you do? Tell us about it.