My Supporting Role

By Judy Nolan. The author is a staff nurse on a pediatric neuroscience unit at Boston Children’s Hospital. She has 25 years of nursing experience.

The Actor, Picasso/via Wikipedia

The Actor, Picasso/via Wikipedia

Who would have thought the lessons I learned in drama class would help me incorporate modern technology into my nursing practice. My drama teacher taught me never to turn my back to the audience. Later, in nursing school, I learned how to heal with compassion and knowledge, “to connect with my patients” almost in the same way I’d been taught to connect with my audience.

When I graduated from nursing school, I was given a pen, stethoscope, tape, and scissors. In my current practice as a pediatric nurse in acute care, I’ve found that it’s all too easy to let technology with all its conveniences and safety measures take center stage. I have a bedside computer, cell phone, and cardiac monitor, among many other technical tools. Yet the importance of creating a therapeutic milieu for patients and families has remained unchanged. Now the challenge I have is how best to use technology as a prop and a backdrop and not as the main event, how to prevent data collection from creating a barrier between me and my patient.

Of course technology has many advantages. In the past, I had to spend long stretches of time away from the bedside, creating written medications sheets and care plans. I remember spending hours looking up each medication dose and side effects in reference books. Transcribing written doctor’s orders and medication information was an art form. Now we obtain the most current doctor’s order and medication information in seconds with a click of a button.

While these conveniences have given me more time to teach, answer questions, and involve patients and family members in their plan of care, my experience as a family member of a hospitalized patient suggests that it is all too easy for nurses to walk into a room like a robot with a computer front and center. The challenge is to make technology an asset to my nursing practice, to not “turn my back on my audience.”

If I now bring a computer along with my stethoscope, tape, and scissors, I also bring a sense of humor. A touch of comedy can distract patients from too much awareness of my nonhuman coworker. For example, when I walk into a
patient room, I introduce myself, log on the computer, grab the medication scanner, and make a comment like “I’m just checking to see if you have earned any coupons.” This breaks the ice and turns an impersonal transaction into a familiar friendly exchange.

In the 1980s, we were taught to chart by exception and document only changes or abnormal findings. Our assessment was documented with a few checks and notes on the back of a flow sheet. This type of charting was quick, but it often took place at the end of a shift. In 2005, central monitoring was
introduced. Each patient’s room was equipped with a bedside monitor and a computer on wheels.

Now documentation happens in real time. Vital signs and assessments can be completed and charted with a click of a button. Any member of the health care team can obtain the most current information from anywhere in the hospital at any time. We log on and off the computer in minutes.

But this convenience can create a barrier between us and our patients. It’s difficult to maintain eye contact while we constantly feed the computer information. That bright electronic screen shouldn’t be more compelling than the human face. I’ve learned to place the computer to one side, enabling me to use open body language just like I did on stage and to maintain eye contact at the same time.

Most patients have an order for continuous cardiac and oxygen saturation monitoring these days. We adorn our patients with electrode wires, O2 sat probes, and bar-coded identification bands. I used to walk into a room and immediately make eye contact with my patient or a family member. With just a quick glance I could assess the child’s general appearance, skin color, and respiratory effort.

Now, I find myself walking into a patient room consciously reminding myself to look at the patient first, the monitor second. Like many nurses, I find my eyes drawn to that bright screen and colorful tracings. I must keep reminding myself that monitors and other equipment are tools I use to enhance my head-to-toe assessment, not replace it. I keep sharing with my younger coworkers that before central monitoring we were fully dependent upon our nursing assessment skills.

As I stand at the bedside, with distracting alarms ringing in the background, it would be easy for me to allow my patient to be upstaged by all the sounds and bright lights. I try not to forget that the patient is the real star. Recently, I received a compliment from my patient’s grandmother, an experienced nurse. She said she had just been hospitalized for major surgery and the technology around her had made her feel disconnected and isolated. She wanted me to know that although her grandchild’s bedside was surrounded by just as much equipment, she did not feel the same sense of disconnection. She praised me and my colleagues for our “human touch.”

When I reflected back on her comments, I realized that I had learned my lessons well. I didn’t turn my back. My patient had remained the main event. I was merely playing a supporting role in the production of promoting my patients’ best outcomes.

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2016-11-21T13:06:33+00:00 September 16th, 2013|nursing perspective|3 Comments

About the Author:

Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. Anne McCambridge September 23, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Well said Judy, good job!

  2. clarence l. Bennett RRT September 16, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    While beginning to intubate a patient for ventilation, I’ve heard often the :OUD shout of”RELAX!!!! That is like taking a WHIP to person, and NO ONE could relax, just cringe for the terrible calamity they felt certain to be imminent!
    How thankfull to have a friendly calm atmosphere provided by my co-workers whaen asked.

    I have also faced a thoroughly frightened anxious patient to whom a nurse, although well-intentioned, was tellling that poor soul “when he takes your BLOOD, hold my hand really tight, it will HURT because it will be an ARTERY that he’ll STICK”
    My technique was to get that inexperienced nurse OUT of there before-hand and present my self with a smile and after holding their hand a few seconds,, asking if they’d allow me to “get a few drops of blood ” —-when they smiled back, I’d gently enter the radial artery and ”get a few” I kept the patient laughing with the only funny story i knew to last five minutes while holding the site closed.

    ” A few drops ” of common sense dosen’t HURT!

  3. Katheren Koehn September 16, 2013 at 10:57 am

    After years of nursing practice, I realized that nursing combines two things – the science of nursing and the art of improv. It is when these two things come together the magic of nursing appears.

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