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The importance of dignity and compassion in care

8 Aug 2018

Dignity and compassion should be central to how nursing staff behave when dealing with their patients.

These factors are a key part of the “principles of nursing practice”, which the Royal College of Nursing helped develop to inform what everyone should expect from those looking after them at a time when they might be at their most vulnerable. But while the majority of patients will praise the care they receive from nursing staff and their medical team, there are times when this might not be the case.

RCN Eastern member Kerrie went from being a nurse to being a patient after she fell ill very suddenly at work. She was later diagnosed with GIST (gastrointestinal stromal tumour), leading to surgery and ongoing treatment.

Kerrie said: “It is very scary to go from being the nurse, to being the one who is vulnerable, helpless and reliant on someone being the nurse for you.

“What makes a difference is care, compassion and communication.”

Kerrie was admitted to hospital after a collapse, but a diagnosis did not come quickly and she said she was left to manage serious symptoms on her own. “I was left lying there, watching the seconds go by, nobody assisting, hearing staff talk about their weekends and marital problems - but not talking to me,” she said. “I was left trying to manage my own personal care, yet being so weak. Personal care that was given was delivered quickly and silently, and at times with the curtains open.”

Kerrie said she was also asked for her permission to be referred for palliative care, even though she had not been given a diagnosis. “I heard terminology being used and looking up what was wrong, seeing ‘cancer’ glare out at me and still nobody giving answers,” she said. “Staff handing over to the next shift would turn their backs, point and whisper.”

Kerrie said that other patients asked her what was wrong with her because they’d heard staffing talking about it when handing over to the next shift. Equally, she’d heard conversations about other patients. After suffering severe bleeding, she approached a nurse for help, but said she just turned her back and walked away. “I felt totally alone and uncared for, with thoughts of death and dying, yet no one to talk to,” Kerrie said.

Then Kerrie was seen by a nurse who she described as “out of this world”, as well as a doctor, who quickly acted to help improve her situation.“They organised tests, had emergency theatres prepared to stem the flow of bleeding and then organised a transfer for vital surgery,” she said. “Without them I am sure I would not be here today.”

Kerrie’s experience highlights the importance of resources like the “principles of nursing practice” which stress how vital dignity and compassion are in the care that nursing staff provide. The eight principles were developed by the RCN, in partnership with the Department of Health and the Nursing and Midwifery Council, along with the involvement of patients, the public and health care staff. They set out what everyone – from patients to nursing staff – can expect from nursing, describing what constitutes safe and effective nursing care, and cover the aspects of behaviour, attitude and approach that underpin good care.

The first principle states that “nurses and nursing staff treat everyone in their care with dignity and humanity – they understand their individual needs, show compassion and sensitivity, and provide care in a way that respects all people equally”.

The RCN website contains useful resources about all the principles, including short films where nursing staff discuss each in turn and what it means to them. Check out the resources here and watch the film here.