As a society, our knowledge of medicine and healthcare is developing rapidly. Our understanding of how the human body responds to treatment is becoming increasingly sophisticated. For example, we now know that a narrow focus on the symptoms produced by a medical issue and how to treat them to the virtual exclusion of all other factors is, in most situations, not the most effective way to achieve the best health outcome. This is why, in recent decades, medical institutions and universities have emphasized the importance of taking a more comprehensive view of individual health problems.
In this article, we look at the most important educational tool for helping nurses improve their decision-making: the case study. After defining case studies in nursing education and how they are typically used, we will examine the skills that can be enhanced through this type of learning. In addition, we will also review the role of case studies in both the classroom and clinical settings, as well as how effective case studies can help contribute to a higher quality of care and better patient outcomes.
An important aspect of nursing education
In education for nurses, case studies usually involve the presentation of a clinical scenario that offers the student the opportunity to receive instruction or develop their knowledge in relation to specific medical conditions or diseases.
This typically takes place through discussions and practical demonstrations of the issue at hand, as well as explorations of any additional factors that could influence the chosen course of action.
Case studies can be applied to any branch of medicine and in any context, from providing emergency hospital care to offering treatment for chronic conditions at outpatient clinics, assisting elderly patients or dealing with mental health issues.
In each case, the emphasis is on taking a wider viewpoint of the problem while also, when appropriate, focusing on specific issues that require greater attention. While many case studies deal with an individual patient, some will include one or more patient groups.
Case studies are used to illustrate or discuss a specific aspect of healthcare in light of a range of other internal or external factors. For example, suppose a group of student nurses analyzes a case where an individual has suffered a heart attack and discusses the most crucial aspects of short-term acute care. In that case, they might also look at the case in the longer term regarding recovery, prevention and possible further treatment options.
As indicated above, with this kind of study, it is important to consider not only the specific symptoms and general course of action but to also attempt to understand the wider context as much as possible. In other words, studying someone’s individual circumstances gives you the opportunity to look in detail at the extent to which factors such as family history, diet and lifestyle choices, age, socioeconomic status, and comorbidities may impact the patient’s long-term prognosis, and also how these issues might affect the type of treatment or advice offered.
So, what benefits can this type of learning have for the student, and what kind of further implications are there for both general health treatment and patient outcomes?
More comprehensive diagnostics
The opportunity to look at the case of an individual and carry out a comprehensive examination of their health status can be a great way for students to gain a more in-depth understanding of the various factors involved in achieving positive patient outcomes.
While studying statistics and theoretical ideas around healthcare can provide essential background information, interpreting the medical data of an individual through a series of medical examinations and tests — whether real or hypothetical — and discussing the possible course of action enables students to apply the knowledge that they have developed to a concrete situation.
This not only helps them hone their decision-making abilities but will also help them gain a greater understanding of the complexity of health diagnosis and treatment.
In turn, repeated use of case studies should help student nurses be better able to evaluate individual cases even when under pressure. This can prove valuable in their career, as they will be faced with a diverse number of patients daily, who in many cases may have the same underlying health issues, but whose treatment plans may vary significantly based on a variety of other factors.
Developing diagnostic reasoning skills is especially important for nurse practitioners (NPs), who are usually expected to make important decisions in relation to their patient’s health.
Case studies can also help NPs learn more about the use of medication and other options when formulating a treatment plan so that they are better prepared to deal with similar situations in a clinical setting.
Taking a wider perspective
Numerous studies have shown that if health professionals are able to take a more comprehensive view of a patient situation — examining a range of additional factors, such as age, lifestyle and family history — it can make a genuine difference in health outcomes. For example, for a patient suffering from type 2 diabetes, in addition to arranging insulin treatment, the health professional should consider a wide range of risk factors that could influence the success of the treatment plan, from diet and body weight to exercise levels, race and ethnicity, and even encouragement and support from loved ones or mental health professionals.
Improving the quality of care
Similarly, a broader outlook can also contribute to a higher quality of care. At times, it is essential for a health professional to employ a laser-like focus to best deal with a well-defined problem, which can be particularly important in acute care. At other times, it might pay to take a step back. For instance, the patient with excruciating back pain may benefit from an exercise such as swimming, that can strengthen their back muscles and, in the long term, alleviate their reliance on pain-killing medicine.
Alternatively, a patient suffering from heart disease might be interested in finding ways to manage their stress levels or improve their diet to reduce the risk of a heart attack.
While there are limits to how much working on these external factors can prevent a negative outcome, a considered approach, combined with good communication will typically have a more positive impact.
In addition, making the effort to learn more about the patient and treating them as an individual will likely be highly appreciated. Conversely, looking at individual cases can also help nurses identify when looking at external factors is less appropriate, or even dangerous as the most important and most urgent course of action is simply to treat the symptoms at hand.
Preparing to succeed
All nurses should expect to come across case studies at some point in their formal education, especially in postgraduate courses, and they are ubiquitous in courses for student nurse practitioners. As indicated above, nurse practitioners typically have a significant degree of responsibility throughout their career in diagnosis, prescribing medicine and setting out treatment plans, which means that decision-making is a vital part of their daily work.
Generally speaking, anyone looking to complete a nurse practitioner degree can expect to encounter a range of case studies during their learning process. A student completing an Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to specialize as a family nurse practitioner (FNP) at a reputable institution such as Wilkes University can expect to focus on applying critical thinking skills to clinical decision-making and diagnostic reasoning.
Case studies will typically be used regularly to illustrate essential parts of the course and help students learn how to apply theoretical ideas in a more concrete, practical setting.
In this way, students can learn how to encourage more positive patient outcomes not just physically but also in terms of psychosocial, spiritual, cognitive, and developmental factors. In addition, graduates will emerge with a more sophisticated understanding of the modern medical profession. The opportunity to take part in clinical placements helps students apply the knowledge gained in a real-life setting.
In addition, the online nature of this kind is excellent for students who require a more significant deal of flexibility due to prior family and work commitments. Still, it can also serve as a basis for further discussion and interaction in the digital sphere.
Learning through experience
Naturally, even upon graduation, all students will have much to learn. As they go out into the world of work, the skills and abilities learned while using educational tools such as analyzing case studies are likely to be invaluable. When faced with a tricky or complicated medical case, with the right training, both nurses and nurse practitioners should be able to assess the patient’s situation instinctively and proactively considering a range of factors that will help them determine the best course of action. Of course, as their experience grows and they have treated a complex range of patient issues, the health professional will be able to rely more heavily on their experience when making future decisions.
Naturally, even the most experienced nurse practitioner will still need to retain the will to learn and an openness to new ideas. As indicated above, our medical knowledge is constantly expanding and developing, and what may have been considered the best course of action in the past may not be the optimum path today. This is why lifelong learning is another crucial aspect for any nurse practitioner interested in achieving the very best outcome for their patients.
In many cases, particularly in the early part of their career, this may take the form of mentoring programs, or peer-to-peer conversations, though many nurse practitioners also enjoy exploring their profession through further training courses or conferences.
In addition, there are also plenty of opportunities for self-learning, including scientific articles, instructional videos on the internet and books devoted to each individual branch of medicine. In each case, the principle is to take the time to learn deeply about a wide range of issues related to health to provide patients with the best possible chance of achieving a positive health outcome.
A crucial aspect of nursing
Overall, the advantages of using case studies as a learning tool for trainee registered nurses and student nurse practitioners are clear. Not only do case studies offer nurses the chance to consider a wide range of factors related to healthcare, but they also enable them to learn how to consider and focus far more on the individual patient, rather than the abstract pathology.
Although medical treatment always requires attention to both the specific problem and the wider picture, case studies can help nurses understand how these two sides of any medical issue may interact and impact each other.
By practicing and improving upon both their diagnostic reasoning skills and their overall approach to treatment, nurses can learn how to offer more comprehensive support to their patients.
Naturally, to achieve this, nurses and nurse practitioners need to first develop a significant amount of background theoretical knowledge as when it comes to decision-making, the right preparation is essential. In addition, the ability to remain calm, assess the situation and — crucially — communicate and explain choices made to the patient so that they also support the proposed course of treatment, are also vital aspects of decision-making for nurses.
The best nurse practitioners can combine all of these factors to ensure that they are working at an optimum level to offer their patients the very best chance of a positive outcome for their health.