As we move through phases of the pandemic, understanding patients’ goals and asking about their worries is paramount.
It’s a strange time in the U.S. (and other places at a similar stage of the pandemic.) Some people are vaccinated—some are not. Some kids are back in school—some are not. Some people are walking into the grocery stores without a mask—some are not. Some people have managed to escape the pandemic without any major losses—many have experienced loss. The loss we each have is different—losing a loved one, a job, and/or connections with friends and family.
Things are changing rapidly, and getting back to “normal”—whatever that means—is increasingly on our minds. Everyone will be approaching this transition differently and clinicians need to be open to a wide variety of approaches to returning to normal.
Personally, I’m both excited to get back into the world again as well as a bit unsettled. Last weekend I took my one-year-old son to a restaurant for the first time in his life. My spouse and I decided the time was right given the decreasing COVID-19 rates where we live. My son did great—I spent part of the time inappropriately worrying that there might be virus particles landing on his head.
When I ask my patients about how their transition back to “normal” is going, I try to remember that there’s no one right answer. Of course, this is how medicine often works. So, when supporting patients in their decision-making around transitioning back to “normal,” think about the skills and techniques you use to tailor recommendations about other parts of their health:
1. Know where your patient is starting from.
Have they been isolated in their home for the past 15 months? Do they work as a nurse or a bus driver? Are they immunosuppressed?
2. Ask about and listen to their concerns and worries.
This is always critical and especially so during this uncertain and unclear transition.
3. Understand their goals.
Do they want to travel? Hug people they haven’t seen in a year? Get back to dating?
4. Be honest about uncertainty.
Data and recommendations are constantly evolving. Patients appreciate our honesty about not knowing.
5. Ask about grief and loss.
So many people have lost so many things and as the pandemic eases people may start to process this loss. Know what resources are available in your medical system and community to support patients. Make recommendations with their input.
6. Support their ultimate decision if supported by science and data.
I firmly tell people why they should get vaccinated and will tell them I disagree if they choose not to. When it comes to other decision about health around getting back to “normal,” I take a shared decision-making approach and recognize they are the people living with their decisions.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.