For individuals with COPD, there is a lot of medical information to take in. Once they have that information, there is also lots to keep track of – medications, specific nutritional needs, safe exercise methods, level of activity, oxygen use if needed and more. As if this were not overwhelming enough, they must then sort through this information, process it and ask the right questions – vital questions in order to know what they need to manage their COPD and stay well.
You may have heard the old saying “Two heads are better than one.” This really does hold true, especially when it comes to optimizing health. And this is why it can help to have a “health buddy.”
What is a health buddy?
A health buddy is a person who assists a person with COPD by helping to make sure information and instructions given by the healthcare provider are understood, remembered and carried out.
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand that the health buddy concept is in no way a judgment of the intellectual ability of the person with COPD. Even the smartest person can miss, or misunderstand, important things related to their own medical care.
Here’s a true story, an example of that very thing. A 45-year-old businessman, successful in his finance-related job, underwent major kidney surgery. The expected hospital stay for this surgery was three days. Unfortunately, his post-op course was rough, with severe pain and an allergic reaction to pain medication. After a six-day stay in the hospital, he was finally well enough to go home. The man and his wife, a nurse, were so relieved and happy that he was being discharged that they did not take the time to carefully review his discharge instructions.
He became quite ill a few days later after having done some yard work. It was then that he and his wife took a close look at his discharge instructions, only to realize that they had both signed off on orders for him to avoid any strenuous activity for two to three weeks! Being overwhelmed by circumstances, whatever they may be, can lead to missing important information. It can happen to anybody.
Stress, anxiety and information overload are common in people with COPD, making it even more difficult to retain what they have been told. A health buddy can be a second set of ears, listening to (and writing down) critical information and helping to make sure it gets understood and carried out.
What does a health buddy do and what are the benefits?
A health buddy goes along with a patient to their routine medical visits and is also there with them when they are discharged from the hospital, emergency room or other procedure. The health buddy is willing to learn about and develop a basic knowledge of COPD and the limitations it can bring. A health buddy listens to the healthcare provider, takes notes and helps the person with COPD carry out instructions at home. Better retention of information is a benefit of having a health buddy.
Individuals with COPD may have limited energy and sometimes be tempted to let an exercise session, a medication dose or a healthy meal slide by. After all, just like the rest of us, people with COPD are only human! With this in mind, another advantage of having a health buddy is that he or she will help the person with COPD be more accountable to their healthcare provider and ultimately, to his or herself.
The health buddy has taken time out of their day to go to the doctor’s office or meet at the hospital, but moreover, he or she is concerned about the health and well-being of the patient. Knowing this may provide an incentive for staying on track with COPD management regimen over the long run.
A health buddy can also be supportive in the time between appointments. He or she may be very interested in learning all they can about COPD, sharing this information and reinforcing what the patient is learning. In addition to that, a health buddy can provide emotional support that is central to living with a chronic disease like COPD.
Tips for healthcare professionals working with individuals with COPD and their health buddies:
- In the course of a discussion, speak directly to the person with COPD. While it is okay to turn to the health buddy briefly, keep the conversation focused on, and with, your patient.
- Although it is recommended that the health buddy takes notes during visits, provide easy-to-read, written information for your patient and their health buddy to refer to later.
- Individuals newly diagnosed with COPD tend to say that they are either underwhelmed with little to no information or overwhelmed with too much information. Look for COPD materials that start out with the basics and give patients hope that they can manage COPD effectively.
- Individuals impacted by COPD often say they wished they’d known about pulmonary rehabilitation long before they were first told about it. Shortly after diagnosis, tell your patient and their health buddy about pulmonary rehabilitation and support programs such as the COPD360social online community as well as local in-person support groups.
A break for the spouse, partner or caregiver
Sometimes the spouse or primary caregiver of a person with COPD can have their own feelings of stress and anxiety that may inadvertently add to the overall stress level at an office visit. A health buddy can help relieve the stress a caregiver is feeling and also reassure them that someone else is there to help. The health buddy can ensure a caregiver that the patient is receiving clear instructions on their management plan.
The COPD Foundation’s COPD in the Hospital and the Transition Back to Home is a simple and easy-to-read 20-page booklet. It can help individuals with COPD who are hospitalized and their health buddies. It is especially written to help patients and their advocates (e.g., family members, caregivers, health buddies) clearly understand what they need to know before discharge in order to prevent future hospital admissions. It includes questions to ask the hospitalist provider, respiratory therapist and nurse or social worker.
Who can be a health buddy?
Although choosing a family member is an obvious choice for a health buddy, that’s not always possible. Here are three other options to consider:
- Many faith-based organizations have a strong support system ready to mobilize when someone in the community needs care. Some congregations have a parish nurse who is available for assistance.
- Local home care agencies may provide a range of services. A trusted in-home caregiver might be interested in being a health buddy.
- Neighbors or new friends in a senior community may be willing to help.
The addition of a health buddy can go a long way in helping an individual with COPD remember, understand and stick with the management plan they have developed with their healthcare professionals. He or she can also be there for emotional support as well as relief from stress and anxiety. A health buddy can be a key member of a healthcare team.
Read more here about health buddies from the healthcare provider's point of view.