It is an understatement to say that being hospitalized is usually an unpleasant experience. For both patients and family members, the stress of hospitalization, along with the fear of the unknown and the uncomfortable environment, can be very emotional, often leading to frustration which boils over.
However, there are a number of strategies that patients and their family members can employ during a hospitalization in order to reduce these stressors and to ensure better continuity of care after discharge. First and foremost, if the patient can advocate for himself/herself, the patient needs to be honest about what is going on with his/her body during the hospitalization – and then report it to the attending nurses and doctors. Although some symptoms, such as urinary incontinence, may be somewhat embarrassing to endorse, any change from the patient’s baseline condition should be reported in a timely manner so that the clinicians can determine the medical significance (if any) of the symptoms.
Some patients are loathe to report symptoms for fear of seeming like a “complainer,” or may not be able to understand what is happening or speak on their own behalf. Family members of this type of patient often need to be the voice for the patient by carefully monitoring his/her symptoms and reporting them to the treating clinicians. Attending physicians usually “round” on patients very early (and sometimes only) in the morning, so family members who have questions should make arrangements to be present for these early morning visits.
Ask Questions. Although obvious advice, patients and family members often fail to ask their questions due to the pressing schedules of their doctors and nurses. Although busy, these clinicians are available for answering questions and have a duty to do so. Patients and their family advocates should keep a list of ongoing questions so that you can ask them expeditiously, keeping in mind that you may be abruptly roused from sleep when the doctor visits.
Speak Up. If something does not seem right to you (perhaps a lab result or a prescription change), it is better to question it and be reassured than to be silent in the face of what may be a medical error. Likewise, if the patient is uncomfortable for whatever reason (pain, hygiene issues, etc.), be persistent in having these issues addressed as even minor problems can fester into major patient frustration that can hinder the patient’s mental state and recovery.
Be Compliant. Some patients refuse testing or monitoring out of frustration or fatigue. As a patient’s family member, encourage the patient to comply to the extent possible so that the recovery will be hastened.
Most hospitalized patients require a follow-up appointment with their primary care physician or treating specialist after discharge. It is a good idea to call the patient’s primary care before discharge in order to update the treating physician on the patient’s condition, to arrange for a timely follow-up appointment, and to inquire if the physician needs copies of the hospital records or radiology scans at the time of the follow-up visit. Radiology scans are now generally provided on disc to patients upon request along with copies of medical records. Scheduling the follow-up appointment prior to or around the time of discharge can provide great comfort to both the patient and her family members in knowing that the patient’s care and monitoring will continue even after she is discharged home.
Hospitalized patients and their family members need to partner with hospital clinicians to ensure that the patient receives the highest quality care. Clear communication is of paramount importance and must often be provided by family members when the patient is unable or unwilling to voice his complaints. The hospitalized patient and her family should be proactive in seeking answers, in obtaining comfort measures for the patient, and in arranging for timely and directed follow-up care as needed after discharge.