RTT provides human connection to patients in the clinic

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Morgan Fineman, RTT, at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center shares how therapists can go beyond the call of duty with anxious patients

When the word “technologist” is in your professional title, many might assume you deal almost exclusively with machines and technology your entire workday. However, in the case of a radiation therapy technologist (RTT), dealing with sophisticated treatment devices is only half the job – the other half is spent interacting with patients, most of whom would rather be somewhere else. How the RTT relates to the patient and what he or she can do to increase the patient’s mood and comfort are critical.

According to Morgan Fineman, RTT, a therapist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona for the last three of her five years as a technologist, RTTs spend more time with the patient than any other caregiver, which presents them with an opportunity other providers don’t get.

“As an RTT, we really get to know the family members and the patient well,” she says. “It’s an hour every time they visit the clinic. I need to be conscious of how I’m setting up the patient for treatment from a therapist standpoint, but at the same time I can also attend to the patient’s emotional needs.”

“The key is to treat patients like normal – in other words, treat them as if they don’t have a disease.”

She mentions four main areas in which the RTT can make an impact on the qualitative aspects of cancer treatment:

  • A positive attitude and outlook on the patient’s part are essential in helping patients cope with their disease and their radiotherapy. “Positive, upbeat patients just seem to do better than anxious, fearful individuals,” Fineman says. “Anything the therapist can do to brighten the patient’s day is worth a try.”
  • Serious diseases – cancer in particular – can de-humanize the person suffering from it, Fineman says. “People can become their disease and let it take over their psyche. The RTT can often detect when this is impacting on the patient. The key is to treat patients like normal – in other words, treat them as if they don’t have a disease.”
  • Patients feel more in control when they know what’s going on, such as information on the planning process and on symptoms they are experiencing from the disease or the radiotherapy itself. “I advise patients not to spend all their time Googling, because they could get conflicting information,” she says. “The radiation oncologist, nurses and RTTs have the best, most pertinent information to their specific case.”
  • Clearly, delivering radiation to the patient is the RTT’s principle responsibility, but as Fineman notes, the RTT can glean vital information about the patient’s physical and emotional state just by being good observers. “The RTT needs to be consciously aware of the patient every day they come in,” Fineman says. “We see them so often we can pick up on things that the nursing staff and radiation oncologist should be aware of.”

Beyond the call of duty

Fineman doesn’t just dispense advice, she “walks the walk” in terms of the extra-curricular activities of an RTT. She recalls two examples vividly, both involving – of all things – the thermoplastic mask used in cranial SRS. Fineman’s imagination and creativity helped turn down the volume on anxiety for two patients.

Spider-Man to the rescue

A 13-year-old male patient is a rarity at Banner MD Anderson; RTTs are used to dealing with adults who more than likely have had many exposures to healthcare situations and therefore are more stoic.

“The mask was dropped off and he was really scared of it,” she remembers. “It’s molded very tight, it’s quite warm and for a patient with any claustrophobia at all the 20 minutes it takes for the mask to ‘set’ can be very anxiety-provoking. I could tell by looking at him that it was distressing him.”

Fineman went home and thought about what the patient was going through and came up with an idea: the patient’s name was associated with the real name of the superhero Spider-Man, so she painted the Spider-Man face on the mask.

“It turns out that the patient loves Spider-Man,” she says. “I got a smile out of him and it seemed like his anxiety melted away. He couldn’t believe someone would go out of their way to make him feel better.”

Say it with flowers

Sometimes it’s hard to reduce the patient’s anxiety, so the RTT has to persist and try different ways to break through, Fineman says.

“Even anesthesia wasn’t helping this severely apprehensive patient in her 50s,” she recalls. “I tried the ‘mask strategy’ again, painting her SRS mask pink and with flowers. I was a little shocked that it worked because nothing else had – even strong anti-anxiety meds. She shows off the mask now.”

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