There’s nothing more frightening than having a loved one in the hospital and feeling clueless. You keep missing the attending physician despite arriving early in the morning. The nurse is so busy caring for other patients that she doesn’t have much time to talk to you and hasn’t been able to adequately review the chart. It seems a hundred tests have been ordered, but you haven’t been informed of the results. There are lots of “chefs in the kitchen” and no one seems to be on the same page. Your loved one is either too ill to participate in discussions with the medical team or unable to understand what’s going on due to dementia. In situations like these, family meetings are incredibly important.
Family meetings facilitate communication between family members and the health care team. The health care team typically includes the attending physician, the primary (or bedside) nurse, the charge nurse, consultants/ specialists, ancillary providers, such as physical and occupational therapists, and the social worker or case manager. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the patient’s condition, treatment plan, and prognosis. This is also your opportunity to ask questions and to communicate your concerns. You should ensure the team understands your loved one’s values and wishes regarding their health care. If your family member has a living will, make sure the team has a copy and is aware of its contents. (For more information see my blog post What You Need to Know About a Living Will). Family meetings have been shown to have a positive impact on patient outcomes and to improve the coping skills and emotional health of caregivers.
Despite the importance of family meetings, most hospitals do not have systems in place to ensure that they occur. If your family member is hospitalized with a complex or serious illness, be sure to request a family meeting. Remember that the doctors and other team members are very busy so you will need to work around their schedules. Family meetings usually last 20-30 minutes. Coordinate the family’s availability, then provide two or three possible meeting options. Midday or early afternoons tend to work best for the providers’ schedules. The charge nurse or a designee will help to coordinate the members of the health care team. If you don’t receive a response to your request within 24-48 hours, follow up via phone or in person, if possible. You are a vital member of your loved one’s health care team and you deserve to be kept informed.
Make sure you check out Part 2: How to Prepare for a Family Meeting.
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