Michael Jones, PhD, is the principal investigator for a PCORI-funded project that examines whether a patient- and family-centered approach to education, mentoring, and support is effective in minimizing hospital readmissions for patients recovering from spinal cord injury.

Patient-centeredness is a fundamental principle that extends to every aspect of the Shepherd Center, a 152-bed hospital in Atlanta that specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation.

Spurred by feedback from patients, the Shepherd Center sought to expand the role of peer mentoring to make it a vital component of the program. Michael Jones, PhD, principal investigator for the project, noted, “Feedback received from patients suggested they did not understand the relevance of the educational programs because some had not accepted the permanence of their injuries, there was too much information to absorb, and it was not yet their ‘new normal’—for example, having to manage lifelong care needs such as bowel and bladder management. Patients wanted to hear from others who had gone through what they were experiencing.”

When Jones introduced the peer-led training concept to the advanced-practice nurses who developed and led the conventional education program, they expressed concerns that the program content would be compromised. They also worried about their professional role and responsibilities.

To address the nurses’ concerns, Jones and colleague Julie Gassaway solicited the nurses’ perspectives, described the value of peer mentoring for patients, and involved the nurses in developing the peer-led training program, which includes outlining roles and responsibilities. Introduced initially to a small group of patients, the program was so successful it has been expanded. Peers now also assist with therapies and counsel patients (e.g., demonstrate wheelchair transfer techniques).

Advice for Others

  • Emphasize putting the patient’s needs first.
  • Engage health professionals so they can express concerns, and respect their perspectives.
  • Enlist expert colleagues to educate clinicians about the value of peer mentors.
  • Set clear boundaries and role expectations for both the peer mentor and the health professional.
  • Begin with a small program—gain experience, measure success, and refine incrementally.

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