How Caregivers Can Think Like an ER Doctor

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Family caregivers provide many functions for their older adults or spouses, from transporting them to a social event to encouraging healthy habits. Caregivers can also find themselves in a cycle of bouncing from one emergency to the next. Juggling crises is a significant part of what we do, so learning how to handle these situations is helpful. Emergency physician Kevin Haselhorst, M.D., an expert in advance care planning, speaks to patients, family members, and healthcare providers about advance directives, palliative, and end-of-life care. Here are some of his tips.


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Know when you can fix it and when to seek help

ER doctors know just enough to keep us out of trouble and how to delegate the tasks that stress us out. We’re not the masters of making everything better. We function as part of a team and not in isolation. So, caregivers, don’t expect to know everything, but know when to call for help and where to go for resources.


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Keep your explanation of what happened simple

Like ER doctors, caregivers want to get to where they’re going with the least amount of time and money spent. ER doctors focus on the pertinent positives of the history and prefer not to hear a patient’s whole life story. Since you’ll undoubtedly have to explain the situation many times over, keeping it simple and without the drama makes is easier for all concerned.


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Make time in your own life to recharge

There are only so many hours in a day and ER doctors rarely work 24-hour shifts. Some doctors go home to their families while others find different ways to unwind. We all need time to recharge before hitting the ground running. Time management includes carving out time each day that’s scheduled and personal. Do something recreational for yourself.


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Find balance between physical care and emotional care

ER doctors need to use both sides of their brains. The left brain is evidence-based and has the duty to treat. The right brain uses its intuition to show empathy and do no harm. The left side focuses on the person’s physical health and attempts to make it better. The right side prioritizes quality of life and spiritual well-being. Caregivers, too, can ensure both aspects of care are fully appreciated.


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Learn to listen

The ER doctor’s best listening occurs through having a beginner’s mind and stating: “Tell me what’s wrong.” It’s being present to what the patient is saying and relaying back what you’re thinking. The goal of listening is to wait for and seize the opportunity to “agree to agree.” A happy patient is a happy caregiver and improves patient-caregiver satisfaction.


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Develop triage skills to make quick decisions

Ask yourself: “sick or not sick, medical specialist or do-it-yourself, hospitalization or homeward bound?” These are the questions that ER doctors ask themselves within two minutes of evaluating a patient. Caregivers need to establish their own triage protocol and then collaborate with the physician on a plan of action.


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Focus on goal-directed therapy

Ensure your older adult or spouse’s safety and needs are met. Patients are rarely able to make great decisions in the heat of the moment. The mutual goal of ER doctors and family caregivers is to offer their patients peace of mind. This may mean controlling their pain and stress so they can breathe easier. Establishing trust is the #1 goal.


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Remember you don’t know everything, and you don’t have to

ER doctors can never be 100-percent certain so we tend to leave room for doubt. This keeps us humble and gives others permission to question us and view us as humans. Being certain of doing your best under the circumstance is generally less than satisfactory. The shame and guilt of not being good enough can create doubt. Even so, doubt inspires faith in a higher power.


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Create your own advance directive, so your ‘patient’ will, too

ER doctors are expected to practice what they preach to maintain integrity and trust. Caregivers need to promote the importance of having advance directives by having one of their own. We’re all destined to die, but how do we all ensure the Golden Rule applies to all? Let the Advance Directive Decision-Tree for Caregivers be your guide.


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Take care of yourself, too

Caregivers are generally the first person to handle an apparent emergency with their partner, spouse, or parent. Having the confidence to stay calm enough to assess situations to see if medical help is needed and knowing how to function as a team when medical help is required are important assets. So is self-care. If we go down, everything falls apart, so self-care to prevent caregiver burnout may be the most important step to thinking like an ER doctor.