ST. LOUIS -- While health care is becoming increasingly high tech and bureaucratic, Saint Louis University nursing students are taking a very personal approach to connect with patients.
|Dorcas McLaughlin, Ph.D., is one of the School of Nursing faculty members who teach students to write therapeutic letters.|
As the students prepare to go home to their families for Thanksgiving break, they're writing patients letters that have the power to heal.
These letters are not a typical message that fades from the computer screen. Called "therapeutic letters," they are lasting testimonials that highlight the patients' strengths and positive attributes and tell how the patient has made an impact on the student's lives. These letters encourage the patient to continue on the path to wellness. And studies show they work.
"It's that human-to-human contact instead of just going through the health care system and feeling like you're an illness instead of a person," said Dorcas McLaughlin, Ph.D., associate professor of nursing at Saint Louis University.
"We're seeing people are feeling better about themselves, self-esteem has improved and patients now are more likely to take better care of themselves. Because patients have a relationship with a nurse or healthcare provider, they're more likely to be compliant with whatever's been recommended."
One-of-a-kind undergraduate program
Saint Louis University's undergraduate nursing program is the only one in the country to incorporate therapeutic letters as a part of its curriculum. A team of five faculty members have published three studies within the last year on the value of therapeutic letters.
As McLaughlin sees it, this personalization of health care hearkens to days of doctors making housecalls "when they became part of your family" and could be a key component to the primary care preventative approach to medicine. In a nutshell, when people feel good about themselves, they're more likely to do the necessary things to stay healthy, she said.
Writing letters doesn't come naturally for some students who had seldom licked an envelope.
"Everything is cell phone, emails, text messages. This was really difficult or strange for some students to write," said McLaughlin, who teaches therapeutic letter writing to undergraduates as a way to establish relationships with patients.
"The letters are one way we're helping students to respond to patients as people suffering from illness rather than seeing patients as walking illnesses. We live in a medical world of diagnoses and symptoms. It starts to affect how you relate to the person and sometimes the person is lost. In this particular approach, we focus on the patient."
McLaughlin said some residents treasure their letters, keeping them in a Bible or other special place. The messages of thanksgiving -- ‘thank you for letting me work with you' -- are appropriate any time of the year.
"A written letter is something tangible that you can keep forever," McLaughlin said. "You can say things, but people can forget them. But every time they read the letter, they're affirming themselves. And for our students, writing letters is one small way to provide truly patient-centered care. It's one of those little things that humanize health care."
Founded in 1928, Saint Louis University School of Nursing has achieved a national reputation for its innovative and pioneering programs. Offering bachelor's, master's, and doctoral nursing programs, its faculty members are nationally recognized for their teaching, research and clinical expertise.
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