Educating And Reassuring Patients

  • Article by: NANCY CROTTI , Star Tribune Sales and Marketing
  • Updated: May 27, 2009 - 9:28 AM

Most of their patients are frightened of the results of the tests they’re about to have, so gastrointestinal nurses must be able to clearly and calmly explain what’s happening. They must also keep up with the rapidly evolving technology that aids in detection, diagnosis and treatment.

Human anatomy hasn't changed, but the technology to detect and treat disease certainly has. For gastroenterology nurses, that has meant lots of ongoing training to keep up with the latest devices for, and methods of viewing, the inner workings of the GI tract.

Mary O'Brien was a floor nurse for 23 years before switching 10 years ago to the endoscopy unit at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview ( Back then, most patients were coming in for esophageal gastroduodenoscopies (more commonly known as "upper scopes") and colonoscopies, O'Brien says. Now, they may have an endoscopic ultrasound to treat or diagnose pancreatic cysts or masses, or endoscopic retrograde cholangial pancreatography (ERCP) to detect blockages of the pancreatic bile duct. Other patients swallow video capsules to detect the source of bleeding in the small intestine, or have a capsule placed in the esophagus to determine whether they need surgery to resolve persistent heartburn.

GI nurses also check the pH balance in a patient's stomachs or esophagus; conduct manometry tests for esophageal motility, and administer hydrogen breath tests to detect bacterial overgrowth, according to O'Brien. The amount of information these newer tests yield is phenomenal, she says.

What Makes A Good GI Nurse

A good GI nurse must be flexible, able to use critical thinking skills to ensure patient safety, and able to communicate effectively with doctors, patients and family members, according to Donna Wamstad, a digestive care nurse at Regions Hospital in St. Paul ( "They should be comfortable in all the different areas of the GI or endoscopy unit, be able to educate patients well, and be willing to listen and take a little extra time if the patients are anxious," she adds.

Patients may come in for a routine checkup, or they may have cancer or their doctors may suspect it. "People come in and are afraid, and it's fear of the unknown, if they're coming in for a colonoscopy," Wamstad says. "About 50 percent of my job is education and reassuring people."

On-the-job Training

Most GI nurses learn the specifics on the job, according to Cheryl Lindstrom, president of the Minnesota Society of Gastrointestinal Nurses and Associates, Registered nurses may train to be certified by the American Board of Certification of Gastroenterology Nurses, according to Lindstrom, who works at the North Memorial Endoscopy Center of Maple Grove,

Lindstrom believes that the job outlook for GI nurses is good, in part because of anchor woman Katie Couric's nationally televised colonoscopy that helped reduce the negative perception of the procedure, and in part because the difficult economy may lead to more people having digestive problems.

Adds O'Brien, "We're extremely busy."

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