Why personal abilities are vital to nurse practitioners

Charlotte Miller

To progress to an advanced level in nursing, individuals need in-depth clinical knowledge and skills, including personal attributes and insights that are highly valued in the industry. Today, the healthcare sector is increasingly utilizing ‘soft skills’ and emotional intelligence to improve patient experiences and outcomes. This is often referred to as humanistic healthcare. In many ways, this overlaps with some of the universal and long-standing personal abilities that make the nursing profession so respected and trusted.

So, what are those personal attributes that modern nursing professionals rely on so much, and how are they developed and enhanced in Nurse Practitioner (NP) students? This article will also explore how these skills benefit current and future patients, and global health improvements on a broader scale.

Why does the human element matter so much?

There is no denying that science dictates the future of healthcare, with the human element often left to the side. For example, there is massive world-wide investment in developing new technologies and treatments to combat the leading causes of death. This includes extensive research into conquering cancer. Scientists, researchers, academics, the pharmaceutical industry, and technology companies make new discoveries every year. These are developments that make it possible to diagnose and treat illnesses, like cancer, with greater success. Tiny devices can now be implanted into the human body to carry out detailed tests, regulate biological functions, or dispense drugs internally – and that’s just the start.

However, sitting beneath all this incredible advancement is the fundamental fact that it is humans that are being treated, not statistics. Each individual patient’s lived experience, preferences, and mental and emotional state matters. Showing kindness to patients suffering from terminal illness is one very potent example. Without the human element – healthcare professionals showing care and compassion – the end-of-life stages for these patients would be inhumane. In some cases, the compassion and care shown can drastically improve the quality of life for these individuals in their final days.

There are also other individual human elements for NPs to be aware of, such as each patient’s cultural background and social environment. For instance, a nurse cannot expect a patient to engage with an expensive treatment program that is economically out of their reach or impose a drug regime on an individual who has their own personal reasons to avoid it.

When in the hands of healthcare providers, patients deserve respect, dignity, and personalized support from humane and truly caring medical personnel. This includes communication of the highest caliber, so these individuals can make informed decisions and feel comfortable and confident in what is happening to them. Furthermore, a patient’s mood and engagement levels can have a tangible impact on how well they respond to medical treatments and hospitalization.

What does humanistic healthcare mean?

By acknowledging that patients deserve to be treated as individuals, and benefit health-wise from focusing on this, it naturally leads to NPs taking a more humane approach to delivering all forms of healthcare. This is humanistic healthcare in a nutshell.

Humanistic healthcare is centuries old. However, there has been a recent resurgence to enhance patient experiences in an era when individual needs could so easily be overlooked. Many healthcare providers are now facing a heavy work burden and a need to automate and streamline their daily operations. They are also increasingly reliant on technology, with good reason to back that.

The trick is to reintroduce humane, compassionate, and responsive clinical care and support purposefully and strategically.

Humanistic healthcare trends

Taking a more holistic approach is an interdisciplinary healthcare concept. It can be translated into different policies, procedures, and working practices in different healthcare departments and settings.

The elements that underpin holistic have been also variously defined, including one model that categorizes humanistic healthcare as providing “Integrity, Excellence, Compassion & Collaboration, Altruism, Respect & Resilience, Empathy, and Service”.

Building open and trustful relationships

At a basic level, this means seeing not just the illness –a medical condition or set of health needs – but the whole person. This leads to NPs getting to know patients and showing professional curiosity that extends beyond symptoms and medical needs. It also involves showing sensitivity and respect for the individual’s preferences, and adjusting methods, techniques, and interactions accordingly.

This does not mean placing the patient entirely in control of what happens to them, as healthcare professionals must still be clinically and ethically responsible for quality of care. Thus, nursing professionals must find common ground with their patients, guiding them towards solutions that are important and positive.

Measuring patient experience

One of the biggest trends in humanistic healthcare is clear evaluation systems, to test whether patients benefit from the optimal levels of compassion and communication. Do they feel listened to, respected, and understood?

Healthcare providers have various ways of carrying out this type of essential monitoring and measuring, including patient forums and individual patient feedback collection.

Evaluation outcomes that throw up red flags could include such things as patients who have not properly understood what their procedure was for, or who felt rushed or ignored during their appointments. 

Offering responsive healthcare services

Person-centered care – within humanistic principles – also needs to be versatile and adaptive.

This is vital beyond the time spent assessing and meeting individual needs when a patient first engages with a healthcare provider. A patient’s health requirements can change over time, even from day to day. So, humanistic nursing is about being alert, and responding to each patient’s own personal ‘journey’ through diagnosis and treatment, and their individual recovery goals.

As an illustration, a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) may become aware that a patient’s mobility improvements are not solely based on the medical interventions they have benefitted from. They may point to a need for aid in their home, or a dedicated therapy program to address confidence issues. The FNP would then liaise with a wider team of professionals, to put everything in place. This also shows how creating a better environment for recovery ensures medical outcomes are more positive. 

Providing self-management insights

One of the humanistic healthcare trends is tied up in the NP’s role in delivering preventative advice and support and enabling patients to self-manage illnesses and injuries.

This could easily get lost or overlooked in a high-pressure healthcare environment, which is focused on dispensing the most vital interventions.

But by investing time with individuals, families, groups of people, or whole communities, FNPs pass on important information about health protection and risk avoidance. They can also promote screening and testing services.

The advantages are clear. By taking this wider, holistic approach, the likelihood of illnesses, relapses, or further complications is reduced. This makes preventative healthcare and other educational activities a key part of the humanistic work NPs do.

Creating humanistic healthcare clinicians

The biggest trend in humanistic healthcare is to recruit and train nursing professionals (and other clinicians) with the required attitudes, behaviors, and abilities to make it a reality, even when demand for services is high. 

An example of this in action would be a hospital ward which provides each patient with a named NP who is their main contact and care coordinator. They could also ensure that this NP has the skills and personal attributes required to focus on the needs, circumstances, and preferences of that patient.

The building blocks of humanistic nursing

For NPs to be agile when dealing with each separate patient and their changing needs, they need a particular skill set that goes beyond the advanced clinical knowledge required for a career as an NP.

Top of the list of personal attributes inherent in this professional role is the ability to ‘tune into’ each patient, in a compassionate and caring manner. Building a relationship of trust and empathy ensures that patients open-up to their NP and feel ‘heard’. They are then more comfortable talking about often sensitive or concerning topics, and more willing to be honest.

Simultaneously, the relationship of trust and strong communication gives NPs better insight into not only medical issues, but also the patient’s mental and emotional status.

For example, a man visits an FNP with a series of physical ailments but starts to open up and respond to the person-centered care he is receiving. The FNP becomes aware of underlying depression that the man has struggled to admit even to himself. If the FNP had only treated the immediate and obvious symptoms at each appointment, they could have missed a crucial medical need that this patient had cloaked behind smaller concerns.

Clinical placements enhance humanistic skills

Emotional intelligence is just one of the advanced interpersonal skills that NPs need to deliver humanistic care. It would be easy to imagine that the key personal attributes nurses need are based on their existing personality and lived experience.

The qualification process for nurses who want to advance their careers now places considerable emphasis on enhancing the abilities needed to deliver humanistic care through hands-on experience. This might be gained through carefully selected clinical placement for nurse practitioner students as part of their nursing education. The Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN-FNP) program by Texas Woman’s University for example prepares students for working in diverse settings and incorporates valuable clinical placement assistance. This involves convenient local placement support in approved states alongside the online coursework and three direct patient care experience opportunities. 

Throughout the process of qualifying for an MSN – and becoming an NP – students are tutored in what it means to be a humane and caring healthcare professional. This includes developing excellent communication skills and establishing solid relationships with patients.

Learning empathy as an adult

Empathy is something that adults can learn or expand, and clinical placements are often the ideal place to do this as they are an environment where compassion and understanding can be practiced. The more patients an NP has access to – and the more time they spend learning to build good relationships – the better at it they will be.

Empathy can also be about learning active listening skills, including interpretation of non-verbal information such as body language and tone of voice. Or, simply practicing asking responsive and revealing questions, and ‘holding space’ for people to express their emotional issues and needs.

In effect, clinical placements give NPs a way to focus on both their competence and warmth in interacting with different patients. 

More clinical placement advantages

During their education and clinical placements, NP students are also supported to develop critical thinking and clinical reasoning abilities, as part of their personal and professional growth. Not only does this equip them to be highly proficient in person-centered care – and humanistic healthcare– delivery, but it also makes them a tremendous asset to employers. 

The same interpersonal skills can be applied to collaboration and communication with colleagues and other healthcare professionals like physicians. It is no surprise then, that NP qualifications (including those with valuable clinical placements) are also helping to shape future leaders within the nursing profession.

Other ways to build humane nursing abilities

Relevant clinical experience is a vital way to develop humane and responsive nursing professionals, but other methods can be used too. For example, role modeling and mentors who focus on humanistic attitudes and behaviors can give nurses new perspectives on how to observe and examine patients, put them at ease, and take their histories or establish a strong rapport.

Some organizations employ experts with humanistic knowledge and skills, to continuously develop their nursing staff in interpersonal skills and holistic evaluation and response.

Impact on patient experiences and outcomes

Preparing NPs for leadership roles, and ensuring they have both personal and professional confidence to deliver humanistic healthcare, is essential. However, is this focus having a discernible impact on patient experiences, and the outcomes they benefit from?

This can be difficult to measure, as it is often impossible to separate the quantitative and qualitative reasons why patients recover from injury or illness.

Perhaps one of the strongest pieces of evidence to suggest that creating caring, compassionate, and clinically excellent NPs is worthwhile, is the demand for these advanced nursing professionals. This certainly suggests that a multitude of healthcare providers have recognized what an important part they play in ensuring patients receive the humane medical support they need, want, and benefit from.

From 2022 to 2032, an impressive 45% growth rate is predicted for NP roles. This is across many fields of healthcare, and all states. This is partly as NPs can fulfil tasks that in the past have been the remit of physicians, but it is also as they have proven to be highly effective and beneficial in a wide range of healthcare settings.

It is logical that improved patient experience, satisfaction, and outcomes will have a positive effect on the whole of the healthcare sector. Not least for patients who are comfortable enough to be transparent and communicative. This adds to the pool of data and insight for future advances in humanistic healthcare.

Job satisfaction and humanistic healthcare

Finally, it is worth noting that embracing humanistic healthcare trends is not only beneficial for patients and healthcare providers, but also for nursing professionals. Having the authority and skills to take time with each patient and develop a strong relationship with them creates positive experiences for NPs. They feel better able to do their job in a measured and compassionate manner.

Having stronger and more effective relationships with patients, based on compassion, and understanding, can ensure that NPs enjoy greater job satisfaction and have more opportunities to advance their career. So, developing person-centered and humanistic care expertise ensures that NPs also enjoy a ‘healthy’ career outcome.