Long-term health conditions

How FNPs empower patients through education and advocacy

Health issues can leave people feeling vulnerable and at the mercy of the medical system. Medicine is, of course, complex. There is a reason why medical professionals such as nurses and doctors must train for numerous years to gain competency in the different areas of medicine. However, this often means that patients can feel bewildered by the jargon and may find it hard to fully understand their condition. Even with understanding, patients who feel unwell, are in pain, or cannot be as active as they are accustomed to, can experience additional vulnerability and confusion. A knowledgeable professional who can advocate for a patient and educate them can help ease some of this confusion and vulnerability, leaving the patient feeling more empowered. Many medical professionals can fulfil that role, but the Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) is one that is particularly well-paced to achieve this with maximum efficacy.

Family nurse practitioner

An FNP is an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN). They can work in a variety of environments from hospitals to schools to their own practices. They work with patients of all ages and generally specialize in primary care. After qualifying, nurses usually work for a few years at least as a Registered Nurse (RN) but once they are ready to advance their careers there are numerous paths open including becoming an NP.

NPs can cover different areas with an FNP working with patients at all stages of their lives, often with families across multiple generations. Another role some consider is Adult Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP). The qualifications needed for this are similar, with a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) being the most widely available. These can be studied either in person or through online study with clinical placements arranged in a convenient location for the students. 

Those who are aiming to become an NP but are unsure which area to specialize in, discussing options with a course provider is a good idea. For those who are considering the merits of family nurse practitioner vs adult nurse practitioner careers, a good place to find out more is from the University of Indianapolis. They offer online MSNs and DNPs for both FNP and AGPCNP programs which are accredited by the Commission of Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and will help prepare students for these interesting and highly rewarding roles.

Both FNPs and AGPCNPs can play educational and advocacy roles. But looking specifically at the FNP, it is easy to see why they are so well-placed. Often working with the whole family, they can get to know their patients well and become trusted individuals. Meanwhile, their advanced nursing training allows them to understand the consequences and prognosis of different health conditions and injuries, so they can analyze how best to support their patients in the long term.

Access services

FNPs working in the community can ensure their patients can access the relevant health services. They can make referrals and use their knowledge of the best specialist care available to make sure their patient sees the right person.

However, having a specialist to refer a patient to is only part of ensuring patient access. There may be physical or financial constraints that make it harder for the patient. An FNP will often know their patients well, including knowing the social and economic background. For example, a patient living in a rural area with poor public transport and with a condition that limits their ability to drive will find it hard to access medical care in a city a fair distance away. The FNP can look for ways round this issue through perhaps knowing organizations or charities who can facilitate patient transport or arrange for a telehealth consultation. Alternatively, it may be that there is another specialist in a location that is easier for the patient to reach.

Finances can be another barrier for patients needing specialist help. The FNP can help make sure the patient is claiming all assistance that they are entitled to or find an affordable option for the patient. On a community level, FNPs can add their voices to groups who lobby for greater access to affordable healthcare for all in the hope of influencing policy.

Facilitate communication

Medical terminology as well as the information around diagnoses and treatment plans may not always be easy to understand at the best of times. When a patient is feeling vulnerable and anxious, it can be even harder. An FNP can help a patient by talking through a diagnosis and treatment plan, making sure they understand all the implications and explaining anything the patient hasn’t initially understood.

Medical appointments can also be difficult times for patients to ask their own questions. In the aftermath of a diagnosis, the patient may be feeling too overwhelmed and the questions they need answering may only arise later. In this instance, it can be helpful for them to talk with their FNP who may be able to answer the patient’s questions. If they are unable to answer the questions, they can communicate with the specialist themselves, acting as an intermediary to ensure that the patient feels as knowledgeable as possible about their condition.

Getting a diagnosis of a short, chronic, or even life-limiting condition is always going to be difficult for a patient. However, by giving them greater understanding of the prognosis and treatment plan, patients can feel less powerless and more in control.

Sometimes, a treatment plan is not clear cut and there can be numerous options to consider with the decision resting with the patient. Talking through these decisions with their FNP can help the patient reach a decision they are happy with, confident that they have made it with full understanding of all implications.

If disagreements arise between the patient and their physician or specialist, the FNP can help resolve them. It may be that the patient hasn’t fully understood their diagnosis or treatment plan, or it may be that the medical professionals have not understood the implications of a patient’s cultural background. Although medical professionals are skilled and expertly trained, this does not mean that they are always right. But patients will often not have the medical knowledge to know whether a treatment is right or not. As a patient advocate, the FNP should prioritize the safety of the patient and take action such as double-checking a medicine dose or making a physician aware of all aspects of a patient’s health. This can help make sure a patient is treated as safely and effectively as possible.

Management of chronic conditions

Long-term health conditions can leave a patient feeling particularly anxious as they wonder how it will change their lives and how much it will be curtailed. When recently diagnosed, it may feel as if that condition will define them and dominate every aspect of their lives. In reality, for most cases if a chronic condition is well-managed, the patient can lead a full a life.

While a chronic condition may require regular medical appointments, there is also likely to be plenty the patient can do to manage their condition and keep symptoms in check. FNPs have a huge amount of experience in managing chronic conditions and are the ideal professionals to provide education in managing a long-term condition. This might include how to take medication to maximize effectiveness, diet and therapies that have been shown to ease symptoms, modifications to the home that will make it easier to manage independently, and information on groups and charities that can assist.

It can be hard to come to terms with having a long-term condition, but knowing effective ways to manage it can leave the patient feeling more in control. Good management will often alleviate symptoms so the patient can continue to live a full and happy life too.

Lifestyle advice

Prevention is better than a cure and so it is a good idea for patients to adopt a healthier lifestyle and therefore reduce their chances of becoming ill. However, most patients today are bombarded with a bewildering array of advice on what to eat, including many fad diets that can make it harder for people to make good choices for their lifestyle.

The FNP can offer sensible and realistic advice on aspects of lifestyle such as diet, exercise, alcohol, and smoking that are backed by medical evidence and that also consider the needs of the patient. Dietary advice for a child, for example, will be very different to that of an elderly patient. Advice can also be tailored to the patient to consider factors such as allergies or dietary choices like veganism. Through giving patients advice, it empowers them to take control of their own health.

Family dynamics

A serious, chronic, or life-limiting illness or injury does not just affect the patient. It also impacts their families. Families generally want the best for their loved ones, but this can sometimes cause conflict. Longing to see their loved one cured, family may, for example, be keen on a particular treatment without fully considering the risks. Like the patient themselves, they are often bewildered by a new diagnosis and wonder what it means for the whole family.

A patient advocate can help with the communication between the patient, family, and medical professionals. An FNP who may also treat other members of the family can be particularly good at supporting the whole family at a difficult time.

If disagreements on treatment take place, the FNP can advocate for the patient with their family. At a time when they are feeling vulnerable, it can be hard to go against family wishes, but the FNP can empower them to make decisions that are right for them.

If a child is unwell or injured, the FNP can offer support to the parents at a worrying time and provide education and guidance on how to manage their child’s condition. The FNP may also empower the child to manage it as soon as they are old enough. With their training including pediatric care, parents can have full confidence in the advice of an FNP. If the patient is the main breadwinner of the family, a serious and long-term illness can bring a whole host of new worries that go beyond health as the family wonders how they will manage financially. An FNP can offer guidance on financial and practical support that is available.

As families are usually well-meaning and keen to help, an FNP can also educate them on how best to support their loved one. If the family members are also patients, they can help support them with the mental health implications of caring for an unwell loved one.

Beyond the patient

FNPs can advocate for their patients as a group and not solely on an individual level. They know what health services are lacking in their community and what initiatives would benefit the entire community. They may be able to set up initiatives to educate patients on aspects of health, but they can also provide an expert voice with politicians and law makers to influence policies that will benefit the community. By improving access to services and advice, patients are empowered to make the best decisions for their health.

Working as an FNP is a challenging, rewarding role where individuals often work with the same families at different stages of their lives across the generations. Any RN who is considering this career path will find that it is worth learning more about training options with both MSNs and DNPs available at universities across the country, in person or through high-quality online study. Once qualified, FNPs can work with a fair degree of autonomy, often seeing their own patient lists. Through treatments, managements, and referrals as well as through advocacy and education, they will make a huge difference in the health and wellbeing of patients.