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Debunking the Myths of Debriefing

Medical debriefings are sometimes held after a significant event, such as a particularly difficult resuscitation or a mass causality incident. The concept of debriefings was started by the military. Debriefings were held after a mission to develop better strategies and allow soldiers a chance to talk about what occurred and process the events. Source

You would think after all of the insane situations we find ourselves in that we would have more respect for the art of debriefing.

Some might say it’s too “soft” or too geared towards “feelings.” As you know, debriefing is incorporated into your nursing curriculum and in clinical quite often. It’s definitely a key component to simulations, and after most clinical days, your instructor will gather the group together to discuss how the day went.

Please don’t discount the value of debriefing. It may seem like a tedious task but it’s absolutely necessary for processing stress, developing your critical thinking and judgment. It also helps solidify the scenario into your memory so that the next time you’re faced with a similar situation, you’ll know what to do.

Here are some myths about debriefing:

There’s no time.

WRONG! There’s always time. You need to make time, even if it’s less than five minutes. Why? Because if you don’t, you carry that scenario around in your head, running through each part wondering what you could have done better. Moreover, believe it or not, everyone else that was involved is also pondering the same thing. Chances are, if you’re feeling stressed and cloudy after an event, your co-workers are too even if they’re experts at hiding it. Everyone’s worried about their performance, and we need to come together to validate what each person contributed to the event.

It’s too emotional.

You don’t necessarily need to talk about feelings. It’s best to debrief about each person’s perspective of the scenario. Who was involved? Who noticed a change? Were you thinking about something but didn’t speak up? You can absolutely do all of this while leaving emotions out. However most of the time emotions do surface, and that’s ok. We’re human. Not robots. Please don’t ever forget that.

It’s awkward to initiate.

You’re absolutely right. It’s intimidating. Of course, you don’t want a resident or attending physician to look at you like an amateur, especially if you’re a nursing student requesting to debrief. However, the art of providing care to a patient requires an apprenticeship-like learning environment. You can’t grow unless you discuss all possible ways that scenario played out. Debriefing is often times the richest learning environment because it’s real time, in the moment, no BS.

 People would rather just get back to work.

Bad idea. Most errors are made in a state of shock- usually after a code or rapid response. If you think you can just go back to work as if nothing happened, you’ll find yourself in a black hole of misjudgments, lack of concentration, and cloudy thoughts. If you do what most health care workers do, which is compartmentalize the event and choose not to revisit it, you’re setting yourself for failure. Take some time to debrief with the group, or debrief one on one with a preceptor, charge nurse, or clinical instructor. Make this a (good) habit.

It identifies what people did wrong.

It’s funny. When the spotlight is on us, we cower under the familiar, which usually involves putting ourselves down. The best way to start a debrief is to talk about what went well. This gives the team some validation that they performed with the best intention, despite the outcome. Most people will start to talk about what they did wrong, but a good debriefer will stray you away from the negativity and focus on the positive. Then, instead of asking what went wrong, talk about what you will do differently next time.

These are some healthy tips to incorporate into your perspective of debriefing. Debriefing is essential, especially when you’re a student nurse. Let it become a permanent part of your nursing practice right off the bat and I assure you, you will be a better nurse because of it.

When is the best time to debrief?

  • After a code blue or rapid response.
  • After a difficult patient has been discharged.
  • After a combative patient calms down or when a nurse feels threatened.
  • After a fall or injury (patient or staff member).
  • After a stressful or emotional day.
  • After a piece of equipment or technology fails that affects the entire team.
  • After an argument or witnessed bullying.
  • After each shift with your preceptor or clinical instructor. (It’s OK to as for feedback if you’re not getting it).

If you step up and request to debrief, you will be a leader by example.

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Date Published - Dec 15, 2016
Date Modified - Dec 15, 2016

Ashley Pofit

Written by Ashley Pofit

Ashley Pofit, RN, PCCN is a float nurse and budding nurse journalist in Denver, Colorado. She has worked as a clinical nurse educator on a cardiology unit, and is currently enrolled in a master’s program to become a nursing professor. Check out her website at www.nursebyheart.com or follow her at www.facebook.com/nursebyheart. Email her at [email protected] with questions or comments.