There’s an art to telling someone it’s going to be OK, and for those who master it, this empathy and kindness can have a significant impact on a patient's recovery.

Nurse-guided mindfulness could help decrease the pain of an uncomfortable procedure, according to research presented April 5th at the EuroHeartCare 2014 conference in Stavanger, Norway. Researchers from Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark found that patients who were told by nurses to imagine that they were in a safe place during cardiac ablation experienced less pain than those who had no mindfulness intervention.

At the heart of the study were the nurses who guided patients into a calmer, trance-like state, highlighting the multifaceted role that nurses play in holistic healthcare.

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How Do Nurses Help?

Many patients have anecdotes about a time when a nurse helped them. But studies like the one at Copenhagen University show how crucial a nurse’s care can be based on scientific data. In the study, patients imagined that they were in comfortable, safe locations, such as the beach, while undergoing ablation to treat atrial fibrillation. 

"Patients told us that visualising their own safe place during the procedure made them feel involved and helped them cope with pain and anxiety,” said Marianne Wetendorff Nørgaard, lead author and a clinical nurse specialist at Copenhagen University Hospital, in a press release.

This kind of calming influence is key to nursing.

“We bring humanity to the patient when we express our own humanity,” said Elda G. Ramirez, Ph.D., RN, and an associate professor of nursing at the University of Texas School of Nursing in Houston.

Distinct Roles for Doctors and Nurses

Ramirez laments that many people assume she and other nurses are on the path to becoming doctors. The comparison between the professions, she says, is “apples to oranges.” Both perform critical duties that contribute to patient wellness, but they do so in different ways.

Another recent study from the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K. highlights the need for a variety of experts in a hospital setting. The theory of the “white coat effect” says that patients’ blood pressure readings are higher in clinical settings, especially when recorded by a doctor.

The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, supported this theory, with doctors recording higher blood pressure levels than nurses. This could lead to incorrect and unnecessary treatment for patients.

“These inappropriate measures could all be avoided by the simple measure of someone other than a doctor taking the blood pressure recording," said Christopher Clark, Ph.D., a clinical research fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School, in a press release.

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Jacks of All Trades  

A nurse’s many duties go beyond handling medications and serving meals.

“I don’t think we give nurses enough kudos for the hands-on care,” said K. Ashworth, RN, a nurse manager in the surgical intensive care unit at the Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus.

Both Ashworth and Ramirez use the stereotypical example of cleaning bedpans when explaining how people underestimate the role of a nurse. While the thankless task is certainly part of the job, a nurse must be mentally and emotionally competent enough to handle a number of responsibilities. Nurses are jacks of all trades, Ramirez says.  

Barbara Ravida, MSN, CCRN, ANP-BC, and team leader of the Cardiac Progressive Care Unit at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, holds similar views.

“Not only do we have exceptional clinical and technical skills to perform the most challenging tasks, we also practice with a humanistic, compassionate, holistic approach that can make the most challenging diagnosis or prognosis easy to conquer,” she said.  

Being a nurse holds its own esteem independent of doctors. In fact, when Ramirez compliments doctors for their compassion, she tells them, “you would make a great nurse.”

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