Stuart S.W. Grande, who contributed to this post, is a post-doctoral research fellow in shared decision-making at the Dartmouth Center for Health Care Delivery Science, interested in the value of new technologies for enhancing the patient voice (patient engagement).
A surprise party can be exhilarating, but waking up from surgery and finding out you can’t drive for 2 to 6 weeks is not. But that’s what happens to many women who are uninformed about recovering from a scheduled C-section. Other women panic when their belly swells up after an abdominal hysterectomy, something they should know to expect, but sometimes aren’t told about.
Setting expectations about recovery doesn’t just help patients prepare, it reduces their stress. After all, when people know to expect things like pain, they usually tolerate it better. And knowing it’s normal for something to look bruised, oozy, and scary can help reduce late-night panicky calls. More importantly, they have a better sense of when something is wrong and should call.
Patients can also be more activated to participate in their recovery. For example, sometimes, like after orthopedic surgery, patients aren’t told about the potential weight gain that comes from being less mobile. While obvious to clinicians, patients often don’t consider weight gain as a side effect. For many athletes, returning to the field of play is painful and hard with no guarantee. In these situations, gaining a few pounds makes recovery feel much worse.
Of course there’s a lot we can do to help set expectations. Be specific, practical, and honest about what they’re going to see and feel. Is something going to look really bruised and upsetting? While discharge may look like normal healing to a clinician, it can be frightening and challenging for people who aren’t used to seeing it, especially on their own body.
When people know what to expect after a medical intervention they can plan and prepare. Caring for them like it was the first time, your patients will be grateful.