Thinking Outside the Wheelchair: Improving Care for Patients with Invisible Illnesses

Thinking Outside the Wheelchair: Improving Care for Patients with Invisible Illnesses

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Thinking Outside the Wheelchair: Improving Care for Patients with Invisible Illnesses

Written by Amanda Marten FNP-C, MSN

Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare field. They are one of the most trusted professions in the U.S. Nurses encounter hundreds to thousands of illnesses during their careers, mostly invisible illnesses, which are growing every year. Let’s discuss invisible illnesses, why they’re important, and ways to improve care for patients with invisible illnesses.  

What is an Invisible Illness?

An invisible illness is a disease or disability that is not readily visible. The term encompasses chronic illnesses such as diabetes, kidney disease, fibromyalgia, and chronic pain. Invisible illnesses also include mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and memory loss. 

Why are Invisible Illnesses Important?

Invisible illnesses are becoming more prevalent in the U.S. According to the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 27% of Americans have a disability. Of this percentage, around 10% have a cognitive or mental health condition, which fall under the umbrella of invisible illnesses. This percentage has increased when compared with the 2010 U.S. census.

Patients with disabilities report poor interactions with nurses. Unpleasant nurse interactions stem from a breakdown in communication, poor attitude, or lack of competence. Nurses are patient advocates and communication experts. They play a vital role in the healthcare system and can change patient interactions and improve outcomes. 

How Nurses Can Improve Their Patient Care 

Nurses promote patient care, communication, and health outcomes—especially for those with invisible illnesses. Let’s discuss ways nurses can improve care for these patients. 

  • Increase Nurse Education: Nurses can elect to take sensitivity training for patients with disabilities and invisible illnesses. Many healthcare organizations and continuing education companies offer these courses.

  • Improve Patient Education: During patient education, include the patient and their family members. Caregivers or families can provide patient support and help recall the material when necessary. Not everyone has the same learning style. In addition to verbal instructions, provide printed information, diagrams, and videos, if available. This provides the patient with reference materials and can help them better understand the information.

  • Don’t Make Assumptions: Don’t make assumptions about your patient’s abilities or behavior. Again, we are discussing patients with invisible illnesses. Observe your patient's baseline behavior. This may be imperative when assessing for medical emergencies. For instance, a diabetic patient can have a change in mental status with dangerously high or low blood sugar.  

  • Enhance Communication: When educating a patient, watch for verbal and non-verbal communication cues. Non-verbal cues can indicate if the patient is paying attention and comprehending the information. To prevent bias, have a positive attitude and pay attention to your tone of voice.  

  • Use Screening Tools: Use screening tools during patient intake. They provide important health information and highlight areas to address during a patient’s visit. Some examples are cognitive or depression screenings, and assessment of daily living activities. 

  • Consider the Cost of Care: Sometimes patients with invisible illnesses are unemployed due to medical disability. It’s important to consider this when executing patient care. They might not be able to afford medications or high-cost medical care. Engage in cost of care conversations to provide resources that can reduce costs, provide pharmacy discount cards, and promote community resources. 

Nurses can improve their care for patients with invisible illnesses to make a positive impact on patients’ lives. These small steps are important enough to change the face of healthcare. Try some of these ideas on your future patients and you will make a positive difference!

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About the Author

Amanda Marten FNP-C, MSN has been a certified nurse practitioner for over three years. With eight years of nursing experience, she has worked in a variety of specialties including urgent care, travel nursing, post-surgical, and intensive care.


American Journal of Nursing.

Champaign County Health Care Consumers.

Disabled World.

United States Census Bureau.

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