MA’s, LPN’s, and
a Patient’s Family

When people go to a hospital or doctor’s office, their families become a bigger part of their lives. Parents, spouses, and siblings are suddenly more interested in their loved one’s health, and they want to help, but as a medical assistant (MA) or licensed practical nurse (LPN), dealing with them can be a challenge.

Some are fearful, and many are demanding, while others simply want to help an ailing family member with his or her needs. It’s an MA’s or LPN’s job as the liaison between patients and doctors to help keep families happy and well informed. Success requires empathy, good communication skills, and so much more.

Making the Most From Dealing With Families

Family members are usually involved in the care of a loved one when the condition is serious or when the patient can no longer care for himself/herself safely. In these cases, a MA or LPN often reports to family members, while also depending on them to fill in information gaps.

Whether they’re giving or getting information, LPNs and MAs can make the most of their time with family members by developing strong relationships with them, starting with building rapport.

Building Rapport

It’s a MA’s or LPN’s job to work with families, and doing that effectively requires building trust and rapport. Smiling, maintaining eye contact, and being genuinely interested in what patients’ families have to say are among the fastest ways to create a positive, long-term relationship.

Making small talk is a proven way to probe their feelings and get a sense of their emotional state. If a family member has something important to say, it creates an opportunity for discussion.

Empathy is important. An LPN or MA who tries to see the world through patients’ eyes will better understand what they see and how it affects their behavior. Like a comedian “reading the room” before deciding which jokes to tell, letting signals from family direct conversation is critical for building rapport. Before asking questions or making comments, medical assistants or nurses should understand their audience.

To build rapport with seniors, for example, it’s helpful to understand generational expectations. Family members of different ages communicate differently. Calling seniors by their first name without permission, for example, is considered too personal and violates boundaries. When boundaries are violated, patients put up walls that can become permanent barriers to communication.

As a group, seniors are more trusting of health care providers, but they’re also less willing to ask questions. A husband picking up a new medication for his wife, for example, may be less willing to clarify details he doesn’t understand. It’s up to the LPN or MA to recognize that generational difference and offer information without waiting to be asked.

Tips for building rapport and sharing information with senior family members include these.

  • Address them by their title and surname
  • Be polite
  • Respect their knowledge and experience
  • Keep promises
  • Be a voice of authority
  • Ask simple and direct questions

Building rapport with children requires a different approach. A child may find formal behavior intimidating, so it’s better to keep things casual. Children visiting the doctor’s office with a sick parent tend to mirror what the parent is feeling. For example, if Mom or Dad is getting a flu shot, it’s not unusual for children to behave as though they were personally concerned about feeling pain.

Tips for dealing with young family members include these.

  • Keep greetings friendly and casual
  • Offer a toy or age-appropriate entertainment options
  • Play with younger children, but don’t ask too many questions
  • Offer a behavioral incentive, such as a piece of candy or a sticker
  • Help them understand what a parent or sibling may be going through with a physical demonstration, such as pretending to give a doll an injection

Regardless of age, family members can better cope with a loved one’s illness when they understand what’s happening.

Dealing With Difficult Family Members

When a loved one is sick, family members often feel obligated to “do something.” But while some act as passive observers, trying to be respectful of patient autonomy, others take a strong advocacy role.

Concern for family can manifest as unusual behavior, ranging from denial to aggression, especially among adult children caring for aging parents. No reaction is necessarily right or wrong, but each requires a different approach.

Adult children serving as a parent’s primary caregiver, for example, often struggle with their role. They have two lives to manage, and that can be overwhelming.

As adults, they understand a debilitated parent needs their help, while as a child, they want to help them preserve their independence. Both roles demand different standards of behavior, so children may feel conflicted.

Some adult children may feign disinterest in a parent’s life, while others may become pushy or demanding, trying to take over the decision making process. Ironically, these opposite reactions may both reflect the same feelings.

Navigating family relationships can also be difficult when the dynamic is dysfunctional. Family members can love each other but still not get along, and that puts a medical assistant or licensed practical nurse in an uncomfortable position. As an MA or LPN, the best way to keep that situation from getting out control is to set clear boundaries.

Setting Boundaries

Even the best relationships require boundaries. It’s critical for patients’ families to respect a LPN’s or MA’s professional authority and the commonality of the workplace, while the LPN and MA should remember that in most cases, family members have a right to be involved and informed. Unfortunately, not all situations are black and white, but there are general rules to follow that help.

Observing Facility Policies and Procedures

Hospitals and doctors’ offices have policies and procedures in place to guide staff interactions with family members. In many cases, complaints from families force new policies to be drafted.

For example, a doctor was recently reprimanded because a nurse gave critical test results to a family member instead of to the patient directly. Despite having the patient’s permission to do so, it caused a delay in care that ultimately earned a complaint from the family, and management was forced to create a policy requiring that all test results be delivered only to patients.

Complying With HIPAA

HIPAA is short for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Enacted by Congress in 1996, it governs how personal medical information is used.

Patients are autonomous, and unless a judge has appointed a legal guardian, family members are only entitled to a loved one’s health information with permission, or in most states, in an emergency, during which the patient can’t communicate. Additional rules affect who is entitled to data related to sensitive issues, including reproductive care, mental health, substance abuse, and HIV status.

These are difficult concepts for patients’ families to understand, and in some circumstances, even harder to accept. Most are unfamiliar with medical law and ethics.

MAs and LPNs trying to respect their patient’s privacy and obey the law can appear as though they’re trying to hide something from family. But violating HIPAA is not only breaking a promise to patients, it’s breaking the law. Most families respond positively to a thoughtful explanation.

Respect Professional Limits

LPNs and MAs are healers at heart. It’s tough for them to see people in need and not respond.

Nurses and medical assistants may work with the same family members for years, and at times, it seems like they’re friends, but they’re not. When requests from family become too personal, they should avoid becoming involved. Maintaining professional distance and objectivity is essential for patient care.

Skills for Dealing With Family Members

An LPN or MA will have as many dealings with patients’ families as with their patients, and at times, they may depend on them for information. These skills help them get the most out of their interactions. They include communication, empathy, and patience.

Communication Skills

As the liaison between a doctor and a patient’s family, LPNs and MAs must be able to express themselves clearly and know how to ask questions. When requesting information about symptoms, for example, questions should be open-ended to encourage elaboration about what they’ve seen or heard.

Family members of a patient in need are often under stress, and they may not understand all that they’re told by medical professionals. When providing education, MAs and LPNs use active listening and mirroring techniques to ensure family members get the clear, concise information they need.

Empathy

Illness can be more stressful for family members than for patients. While people are hospitalized and working on getting well, their families may bear additional responsibilities from visiting to caring for things at home. An LPN or MA works with families from all walks of life, and their needs can be difficult to predict.

Empathetic health care workers strive to see the situation from family members’ point of view so that they can better understand how they perceive the patient’s illness and how it’s affecting them personally. Empathy not only improves communication, but it gives MAs and LPNs more insight into patients and their family’s needs.

Patience

Family members’ worry about a loved one’s health can affect their behavior. Stress can make them tired, irritable, and angry. At times like that, it’s not unusual for them to take their frustration out on the nurse or medical assistant, but the situation can escalate unnecessarily without discretion.

Nurses and medical assistants should remind themselves that family members may simply be reacting out of stress or fear and that allowing them to vent their emotions may be helpful.

Final Thoughts

There’s an old saying in the nursing field: Caring for patients means caring for their families. It’s a vital part of a clinical health care worker’s job, and while it can be challenging, it can also be extraordinarily rewarding.

Did learning about how to deal with family members as an LPN or medical assistant interest you? Ready for an exciting new career in the health care field?

The Medical Assistant program or Practical Nursing program provides the graduate with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to function as a clinical health care worker who deals directly with patients.

The Medical Assistant program provides hands-on experience in a real medical setting where you can foster professional relationships with actual patients. Medical Assistant students spend 160 hours in an externship in an actual medical environment where they are supervised and taught in order to gain valuable on-the-job training.

Part of the practical nurse training curriculum is devoted to theory and the rest to hands-on laboratory skills practice and off-site clinical rotations. These rotations include work at long-term care and rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and childbearing and pediatric outpatient settings.

Upon successful completion of NCLEX-PN, the National Council Licensure Examination, which is a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses in the United States, the licensed practical nurse (LPN) works under the direction of a registered nurse or licensed physician in a variety of health care settings.

Contact us today to find out more about how to become a medical assistant or LPN on Long Island.