Real World Health Care Blog

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A Shot of Courage for Those Who Fear Needles

This is the first of a two-part series on what’s working to prevent and address needle fear.

Most people don’t enjoy shots.

But for those with needle phobia, the fear of shots can be so severe that they actively avoid medical procedures involving injections, and in extreme cases avoid medical care more generally.

Jamie Elizabeth Rosen

Jamie Elizabeth Rosen

Needle phobia can arise from genetic and environmental factors, including experiencing pain during encounters with needles or seeing others uncomfortable or distressed by needles. Studies show that approximately two out of three children and one in four adults are afraid of needles, and 10 percent of adults have an outright needle phobia, characterized by avoidance behavior and physiological responses, such as increased heart rate or fainting.

The miracle of modern medicine has enabled us to protect ourselves from a range of dangerous or life-threatening diseases. In one recent study, seven to eight percent of adults and children reported avoiding potentially life-saving immunizations as a result of needle fear. Given the growth of vaccine-preventable outbreaks throughout the world (check out this interactive map), this is not only a concern for individual health but also for public health.

Preventing and Addressing Needle Fear

Fortunately, a growing cadre of empathetic health professionals is taking the prevention of needle pain, which can trigger needle fear, to the next level.

“In order to combat pain, vascular access professionals across the country are looking at creative ways to address patient pain and patients’ perception of pain,” said nursing leader and vascular access expert Lorelle Wuerz, MSN, BS, BA, RN, VA-BC. “Offering the patient options before you do any procedure is important.”

Wuerz said that she uses a variety of interventions to combat needle fear and pain in patients, including:

  • Ensuring patients know what to expect;
  • Deep breathing;
  • Guided imagery;
  • Distraction techniques;
  • Topical agents;
  • Warm compresses;
  • Involvement of child life professionals;
  • Pain control devices, such as Buzzy®;
  • Aromatherapy (“Anecdotally, this is something patients find soothing and calming during an uneasy time,” Wuerz said.).

Needle pain prevention extends beyond traditional health care settings. For instance, after discovering that 23 percent of Americans who skipped flu vaccination did so to avoid needles, Target Pharmacy began offering micro-needle flu vaccines. The needles are 90% smaller than those that have traditionally been used and reportedly result in less muscle ache and pain immediately following injection.

“Treating needle pain reduces pain and distress and improves satisfaction with medical care,” wrote pain researcher Anna Taddio in a chapter on needle procedures in the Oxford Textbook of Paediatric Pain. “Other potential benefits include a reduction in the development of needle fear and subsequent health care avoidance behaviour.” 

The 4 Ps of Needle Pain Management

In the Oxford Textbook chapter, Taddio outlined the four domains of interventions that can reduce needle pain for patients, known as the 4 Ps: procedural, pharmacological, psychological, and physical.

Procedural interventions involve bypassing needles altogether through the use of needle-free immunization or non-invasive sampling devices. Pharmacological interventions include local anesthetics, which have been shown to be effective and safe for reducing pain from common needle procedures, and sweet solutions for infants up to 12 months, which have been shown to reduce needle pain behaviors. Psychological interventions include coaching people to cope and providing distractions. Physical interventions – such as upright body positioning, tactile stimulation, and use of cooling agents or ice – can also reduce the perception of needle pain.

Empowering Ourselves

Many people will celebrate the day when shots are replaced with futuristic technology, such as a robotic pill or one of many other innovations currently in development.

In the meantime, what can patients do to help themselves? “A patient should never not speak up,” Wuerz said. “It’s okay to have all of the information before you make a choice.”

Stay tuned for Part II of the series, in which Dr. Amy Baxter, MD – pain researcher, CEO of MMJ Labs, and inventor of Buzzy® Drug Free Pain Relief – will outline how you can protect yourself and your family from needle pain. Dr. Baxter will appear on ABC’s Shark Tank Friday, February 28 at 9:00 pm EST.

How do you respond to needles? What works for you? Have you had a good experience with a health care professional? Post your experiences to the comments section.

When the Health Care Blogger Becomes the Cancer Patient

The call came the day after my 48th birthday in April.

“The radiologist saw something suspicious on your mammogram from last week…an undetermined mass,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. “We’d like you to come in for an ultrasound so we can see better.”

Linda Barlow

Linda Barlow

During the ultrasound they assured me that it was probably nothing…that in most cases, it’s a benign lump and not cancer. Surely, I thought, as I scheduled a needle biopsy for a few days later, this would be the case for me as well.

But it was not the case. Once the results from the biopsy came back, I realized that I had become a cancer patient. I was now part of a community of more than one million other Americans who are diagnosed with cancer each year.

The days and weeks after that ultrasound and needle biopsy became a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments, tests, and procedures, as well as surgery to remove the lump in my breast, along with several lymph nodes. As of this writing, I’m undergoing six weeks of daily radiation treatments, and soon will be starting drug therapies that will last for at least five and up to 15 years.

Just when I started to recover from the surgery, the bills started to roll in. I have what I thought was pretty good (but expensive from a premium standpoint) medical coverage under my husband’s workplace plan. But even with premiums that are far higher this year than we’ve ever had to pay in the past, the system demanded more of our money:

  • $334.43 for one ultrasound
  • $106.04 for another ultrasound
  • $35.49 for an oncologist office visit
  • $131.15 for a nuclear medicine injection prior to my sentinel node removal
  • $421.80 for my lumpectomy
  • $468.61 for lumpectomy prep work
  • $181 for the surgeon who removed the lump
  • $60 for post-surgery physical therapy
  • $737.45 for oncotype diagnosis test

These are just a few examples and don’t include charges relating to the 30 radiation treatments I’ll be receiving or the genetic testing being done (since cancer runs in the family).

While these out of pocket costs are certainly hard to swallow – I can think of a hundred other things I’d rather spend my money on – for my family, they are doable. We won’t have to skip a mortgage payment or a utility bill. We won’t have to dip into a child’s college tuition fund. We certainly won’t have to worry about having enough money for food.

But I know – from my work on this blog and with its main sponsor, the HealthWell Foundation – that many families living with cancer aren’t so lucky.

I had the opportunity to help HealthWell create a White Paper, “When Health Insurance is Not Enough: How Charitable Copayment Assistance Organizations Enhance Patient Access to Care,” which investigated the devastating effects of not being able to afford needed treatments for chronic and life-altering medical conditions. For some individuals and families, out-of-pocket expenses including deductibles, copayments and coinsurance can total thousands of dollars each month – much more than many people earn.

That’s not the case for me. I’m one of the lucky ones.

“I’m lucky” is a statement you don’t often hear from cancer patients, but it’s how I feel about my situation. I’m lucky that my cancer was caught early by an astute reading of my mammogram. I’m lucky that my specific type of cancer was deemed “curable” and didn’t spread to my lymph nodes or other organs. I’m lucky that my job as a freelance writer gives me the flexibility to go to doctor’s appointments when needed. And I’m lucky to be in a two-income household with no kids and the easy ability to pay our bills. For now.

Of course, this could all change in a heartbeat. My freelance assignments could dry up, which would impact our income. My husband could lose his job or become disabled. We could be hit with an unexpected and costly disaster like a house fire or a tree crashing through our roof. The cancer could come back.

I am, in effect, a heartbeat away from being in a position to need real financial help.

If I need help, I’m thankful that charitable copayment assistance foundations like the HealthWell Foundation exist. Cancer isn’t something you can put on the back burner until the time or money is right. Treatment is costly. Premiums and copayments are high. For the 29 million Americans with limited incomes and/or inadequate insurance, the toll can be devastating – physically, emotionally and financially.

That’s why I’m calling on readers of this blog to help. Your donation to the HealthWell Foundation, the American Cancer Society or other charitable assistance foundations really will make a difference. Maybe not for me personally, but certainly for the millions who aren’t as lucky as me.

Categories: Cost-Savings