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Better Observation Means Better Patient Care

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writing as Sherlock Holmes, once said “Never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.” In other words, in order to succeed, you must successfully observe. For nurses, most-if not all-of their success relies on good observational skills. You’re expected to consistently notice vital signs, whether a condition is worsening, new symptoms, and if you fail to notice any of the above, lives could be at risk.

“It is easy to take a blood pressure or temperature, but it is about putting this information together and coming to a judgement about a patient’s condition. This takes a high level of skill,” warns emergency care advisor Alan Dobson. “Relying on staff who are not adequately trained to spot sick patients could be putting patients at risk.”

The good news is, unlike some skills and talents, good observational skills can be learned or developed. One study has even found that nurses can learn to be better observers by studying visual arts.

“Observation is key to diagnosis, and art can teach students to slow down and really look,” explains Bioethicist and medical anthropologist Craig Klugman. “A clinician might notice one thing about a patient, such as dirty hands or torn clothes, and jump to conclusions without looking more closely. We found that art can teach students to see both the big picture and small details that can be easily overlooked,” he said.

Of course, there are some everyday (and fun) ways of improving observational skills as well. The website Lifehack suggests:

  • Practicing meditation or mindfulness.
  • Regularly journaling as you observe life around you.
  • Take off your headphones and eliminate distractions while traveling, eating, or shopping, instead focusing on your actions and the details surrounding you.
  • Create your own Sherlock Holmes-esque stories-note the behaviors, body language, and characteristics of people nearby and imagine who they might be, what they might be doing, and what might be their motivations.

These skills are especially helpful in that they can come in handy outside your clinic or hospital. Aside from coming in handy during day-to-day activities or in building stronger relationships, a sharp eye can also save lives. Recently, for example, a Connecticut nurse’s strong observational skills saved a woman’s life, after she saw through layers of makeup and acting to spot a kidnapping and physical abuse victim. You can read her full story here.

One of the greatest things about nursing is that we can always get better. There’s always something new to learn or a skill we can improve, and whenever we do, the ripple effect among our patients is unmistakable. So keep those eyes open!

If you’d like more information on how Unitek College can help you begin or advance a career in nursing, you can contact us here.