How Nurses Mitigate and Manage Chronic Illness

Nurses play a critical role in chronic disease treatment and prevention, largely through patient education.

Chronic diseases cause 70% of American deaths each year, making them the primary cause of death or disability in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chronic conditions such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer generally are triggered by lifestyle choices or a lack of preventative care.

Sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy weight, smoking, and drug and alcohol abuse are all lifestyle habits that can trigger any one of the chronic conditions listed above. Prevention is crucial, but managing chronic diseases can reduce the risk to life.

A 2015 study conducted by researchers for the Rand Corporation found that the number of Americans with chronic conditions is expected to reach 171 million by 2030.

“Unless these chronic conditions are managed effectively and efficiently,” the researchers wrote, “the implications of these numbers for morbidity and mortality, workplace productivity and healthcare costs in the coming decades will be staggering.”

As the rate of chronic diseases increases, so does the need for nurses, who can educate patients regarding healthy best practices to help prevent the further development of potentially life-threatening chronic conditions.

Importance of Patient Education and Preventive Care  

Educating patients about healthy lifestyle habits through preventive care is typically less costly than managing a chronic condition after it has already developed.

Unfortunately, according to the CDC, “Americans use preventive services at about half the recommended rate.” This has financial, as well as health, consequences: The CDC says that 69 million American workers miss days each year because of chronic illness, a loss of economic output valued at approximately $260 billion per year.

Instructing patients to adopt lifestyles that reduce risks for chronic diseases can result in healthier patients overall, and early detection can mean the difference between actively managing a condition and experiencing debilitation – or even death.

Prevention occurs on three levels:

  • Primary prevention – Promotes health and wellness, championing active, healthy lifestyles that reduce risk factors for disease
  • Secondary prevention – Often in the form of screening, secondary prevention seeks to detect and manage diseases or risk factors early on
  • Tertiary prevention – This treatment seeks to prevent further spreading, advancement or death after the disease has developed

Chronic Disease Management   

Education is essential to chronic disease management. Patients should be knowledgeable about the trajectory of their disease so they are able to identify abnormal symptoms as they arise. The same goes for a patient’s family members.

When chronic disease management is ongoing, patients are expected to comply with physician’s orders, such as taking a daily medication or being present for routine appointments. In order to successfully monitor the disease, chronically ill patients typically have a regular healthcare provision team assigned to them. The consists of healthcare professionals who are familiar with the case and with the patient’s medical history.

As a vital part of this team, nurses work with physicians to provide critical elements of the chronic care model.

Shared electronic health records and access to updated information at the system level also are crucial for disease management. Nurses must ensure these databases are accurate, both to communicate with patients and to maintain more complex cases that might require the attention of specialists.

The Role of Nurses

Nurses serve as leaders in providing quality care for patients with chronic diseases. Some of the attributes of chronic disease management include:

  • Monitoring information systems
  • Identifying patients with chronic diseases
  • Classifying patients by level of risk
  • Including patients in their own management care
  • Partnering with case managers
  • Leveraging experts across disciplines
  • Minimizing unneeded visits or hospital admissions

Chronic disease management can be further complicated when a single patient has developed multiple chronic conditions. A 2004 Johns Hopkins University study titled Chronic Conditions: Making the Case for Ongoing Care, found that more than half of those who suffer from chronic conditions don’t have only one, making the disease management process even more complex

Effective communication between nurses and patients drives positive outcomes, and creates efficiency, which is critical considering the important role nurses play when it comes to managing chronic conditions.



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