Nursing Skills: High-Tech vs. Low-Tech

Nursing today is a high-tech profession. Technology plays a role in direct patient care activities (automatic monitoring of vital signs, programmable infusion pumps, etc.) and in patient safety initiatives (bar coding, computerized order entry for medications). It is increasingly available right at our fingertips, as we use smart phones, tablets, and laptops to access patient charts, drug information, and medical literature.

There’s no doubt that technology is transforming the way nurses deliver care. But one thing technology can never do is replace nurses entirely. No matter how well it works for nurses, technology can only work for patients when it’s combined with highly competent, relationship-based care. And this is why nurses must embrace their low-tech skills, as well as develop new high-tech competencies.

What kinds of nursing skills are considered low-tech?N

You can probably think of many others on your own, but here’s a partial list:

  • Communication & interpersonal skills – these come into play when we’re dealing with both patients and other caregivers
  • Intercultural skills – increasingly important as communities become more diverse
  • Critical thinking
  • Patient advocacy
  • Nursing process – the methods by which we perform patient assessments, develop nursing diagnoses, and plan nursing interventions
  • Patient and family education – regarding medications, managing chronic illness, etc.

All of these skills are inter-related. For example, you’ll need critical thinking skills when you apply the nursing process to a specific case, in order to integrate new information and monitor progress as your patient’s status changes. And you may need both interpersonal and intercultural skills to effectively convey complicated discharge instructions to an elderly or ethnic patient, or to advocate for her. As nurses, it is our communication and interpersonal skills that allow us to use our knowledge for the benefit of patients. In short, the low-tech skills enable us to link nursing theory to real-life practice.

Caring is equated with competency

But the most important thing about low-tech nursing skills is this: They are crucial to the interactions that build the nurse-client relationship. When nurses build trusting relationships with patients, they have the power to influence outcomes. This is backed up by research. Consider the following examples:

  • Among psychiatric patients, the quality of nurse-patient interaction has been shown to influence medication compliance, according to a report in Psychiatric Nursing.
  • In oncology, nurses can use interpersonal and interventional skills to help patients manage difficult side effects. A study in Cancer Nursing found that a simple 10-minute foot massage has a “significant, immediate effect of the perception of pain, nausea, and relaxation.”
  • A survey of attitudes toward palliative care in the U.K. revealed that patients and nurses alike “agreed that the two most important characteristics of an expert palliative care nurse were interpersonal skills and qualities such as kindness, warmth, compassion and genuineness.”
  • Patient satisfaction, which will be a factor in Medicare reimbursements starting this fall, is also influenced by the nurse-client relationship. Press Ganey Associates, a company that evaluates health care performance, has identified “Nurse Communication” as the factor with the greatest impact on patient ratings of their overall hospital experience and likelihood to recommend the hospital.

As technology revolutionizes health care, we have to make sure the high-tech does not displace much needed low-tech skills. In high-tech areas like the ICU, it’s far too easy to get so focused on the ventilators and the beeping monitors that we forget the human needs of our patients and their families. And in cutting-edge, high-tech tele-health situations, where communication does not happen face-to-face, we’ll have to figure out ways to cultivate strong nurse-patient relationships. Taking time to connect with your patients, to educate them and advocate for them, can elevate you from a good nurse to a great nurse.

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