Communication about the Heart Failure Trajectory in Patients, their Families and Health Care Professionals

Abstract: Introduction: There is an increasing awareness in the field of cardiology regarding the need for improved delivery of palliative care in patients with heart failure (HF). Professional guidelines have drawn attention to the importance of discussing the heart failure trajectory with patients and their families. These discussions can include, for example, talking about the prognosis, expectations for the future, and care at the end-of-life. It seems difficult for health care professionals to choose the right time for initiating these discussions. They often avoid these conversations because they are afraid of taking away hope and make the patients and their families anxious.Aim: The overall aim of this thesis was to improve communication about the heart failure trajectory in patients, their families, and health care professionals.Design and methods: This thesis includes five studies using different designs and data collection methods. Study I has a cross-sectional design using a questionnaire to collect data to describe heart failure nurses’ perceptions of and practice in discussing prognosis and end-of-life care with heart failure patients. Study II has a descriptive and comparative design, where a survey was performed to describe Swedish and Dutch heart failure nurses’ reasons for discussing or not discussing prognosis and end-of-life care with patients. Study III has an inductive and exploratory design, where HF patients participated in focus groups or individual interviews. Data was collected based on their perceptions of communication about the heart failure prognosis. Study IV was a small-scale ethnographic study describing and evaluating the delivery of a simulation when teaching third-year nursing students about end-of-life care at a Swedish university. Study V used co-design in which patients with HF from primary care, their family members and health care professionals (physicians and nurses) from palliative and HF care were invited to be constructive participants in the design process of a communication intervention. Health care professionals participated in a first feasibility testing of the intervention.Results: Most Swedish HF nurses had discussed prognosis (96%) and end-of-life care (84%) with a HF patient at some point in clinical practice. The nurses often reported that a physician was to have the main responsibility for such discussions (69%), but that the nurse was also believed to have a role to play (I). Prognosis and end-of-life care were, together with sexual activity, () the three least frequently discussed topics in HF clinics in both Sweden and the Netherlands (II). In conversations with 1,809 Swedish and Dutch HF patients, prognosis was discussed with 38% of the patients and end-of-life care was discussed with 10%. In study III, patients expressed different experiences of and preferences for communication about their HF prognosis. Many patients described that the health care professionals had not provided them with any prognosis information at all. The patients had different understandings of HF as a chronic illness, which had an impact on their preferences for communication about their prognosis (III). The simulation training described in the ethnographic study (IV) was part of an end-of-life care simulation during the last term of the 3- year bachelor degree level nursing education program, where students learn and practice basic palliative care. The students felt that the simulation training was a good opportunity to practice handling end-of- life situations as it gave them a chance to experience this situation and their own feelings and thoughts on death and dying. In study V, an intervention to improve communication about prognosis and end-of-life care in HF care was developed and some areas were feasibility tested. Heart failure patients, their families and health care professionals working in HF care or palliative care participated in the development process. Health care professionals (nurses and physicians) participated in the following feasibility testing of the intervention.Conclusions: This thesis shows that prognosis and end-of-life care are seldom discussed with HF patients in Swedish and Dutch heart failure care. and that many heart failure nurses have ambiguous attitudes towards discussing these topics with patients and their families (I+II). The patients described that they receive different messages concerning their heart failure, and that they also have different preferences for discussing the heart failure trajectory with health care professionals. The professionals need to understand the impact of heart failure on each patient and adapt the communication to each individual (III). End-of-life care simulation with skilled supervisors shows great promise for health care professionals to learn good communication skills in end-of-life care conversations (IV). A Question Prompt List and a communication course might be useful for improving communication about the heart failure trajectory in patients, their families, and health care professionals

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