Surgical liaison nurse keeps families connected


Fear of the unknown can be unsettling for anyone but for families of patients undergoing surgery, that fear is often compounded. Lorraine Osborne felt that anxiety could be better addressed so the clinical educator in perioperative services at Kingston General Hospital (KGH) set out to do just that through the introduction of a surgical liaison nurse.

A little more than one year since the innovative program was introduced at the acute-care teaching hospital, its architect spoke of its success at the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses 53rd Congress in Washington, D.C.

“The history and culture of the operating room is very serious and sometimes secretive,” says Osborne, who served as one of dozens of speakers at the annual conference attended by more than 7,400 perioperative professionals from around the world. “Research shows that without communication from the health-care team, families assume the worst. They often think something’s gone wrong or they might even think their loved one is dead. The liaison nurse helps to ease their concerns.”

The surgical liaison nurse program provides waiting family members with a direct link to the operating room. Liaison nurses canvass their triage and recovery room counterparts before speaking directly with family members waiting out the surgery in hospital. Relatives located off site can also phone the nurse for updates.

The concept was first piloted at Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax where Osborne worked previously. Over an 18-month period, she conducted a qualitative survey of local patients and their families, shadowed a former colleague involved with the QEII program and introduced necessary plans and procedures, including the use of late-career surgical nurses, to move toward the pilot phase.

Within weeks of its inception at KGH, the program’s impact was irrefutable. Today, there are three late-career nurses who serve as surgical liaisons five days a week. “It was immediately evident that this was a worthwhile program. We provided the information the families needed and wanted and it made such a difference to them,” recalls the veteran OR nurse. “Families are left to deal with the outcomes of surgery long after the procedure is over. Families become part of the health-care team and they need to become part of the communication loop.”

Osborne says anecdotal evidence also shows that the presence of a liaison nurse in the OR also helps put patients at ease. They have peace of mind knowing their families are informed and, as a result, tend to respond better to anesthetic and are likely to recover more quickly.

While she admits the program’s development was not without its challenges, Osborne says, overall, hospital administrators were supportive, including the head of surgery at Kingston General and Hotel Dieu hospitals, Dr. Dale Mercer.

“This nurse is vital to the smooth functioning of the OR and for appropriate communication between the patient’s family and the surgical team. Frequently, the surgeon only has a few minutes between cases in the operating room and if the family members are not available at that time they do not get timely information about their loved ones,” says Dr. Mercer, who is also president of The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. “I believe that this role goes a long way to improving communication issues with anxious family members of patients having surgery.”

And, as technology advances and health care becomes more and more automated, Osborne says that the role of the surgical liaison nurse will become even more critical. “The more high tech we become, the more humanistic we need to be. This program demonstrates that by caring for our families, we are also caring for our patients – and that’s what we’re all about.”

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