8 Ways to Advocate for Yourself When You're in the Hospital

Ask hospital employees to tell you their names and consider writing down details of your conversation so you don't forget.
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A capable, confident attitude can take a hit when you're hospitalized. A flimsy (and often overly revealing) gown, meds and the reality of being unwell can combine to leave you feeling vulnerable.

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You may be separated briefly from your hearing aids or glasses, items that are vital for communication. Plus, everyone is speaking a language that may not be clear to you (even if you've logged many hours of ‌Grey's Anatomy‌).

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Still, it's incredibly important to advocate for yourself, particularly in the hospital.

"Patients often have that sixth sense of what's wrong with them," says academic hospitalist Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP, dean of medical education at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. You don't want to disregard that gut instinct, she says.

That's not to say you need to be aggressive or rude. But speaking up for yourself in the hospital can help ensure your time there is more comfortable — and may even be important to your health. Here's how to do it.

1. If Possible, Educate Yourself Beforehand

Many trips to the hospital are unplanned — you're there due to an unexpected emergency. But if you know in advance you're headed there, to give birth, have surgery or another planned procedure, read up beforehand so you know what to expect.

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Your health care team will likely get in touch in the days preceding your time in the hospital to prepare you. Take that opportunity to ask questions and make sure you fully understand what to expect during your stay, including how long you'll be in the hospital and any common side effects of treatment.

2. Get Loved Ones Involved

In the best-case scenario, your loved ones are present during your hospital stay, acting as a second set of ears and helping to advocate for your needs, like getting a blanket or ensuring your pain is addressed.

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Geography and obligations mean loved ones may not always be physically by your side, but even then, you can still loop them in. In the past, Dr. Arora would call family members on the phone during rounds. But now, she asks if people want to FaceTime someone. That way, "we can talk together," Dr. Arora says, eliminating the need for you to play a game of telephone, repeating back information later to a loved one.

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"You don't need to feel like you're alone. You can be prepared to use tools to get your family members and caregivers connected with your care team," Dr. Arora says.

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3. Know Who You’re Talking To

People who work in a hospital — lab techs, nurses, surgeons and doctors — all tend to be clad in the same outfit: scrubs. As a patient, this can make it hard to know who exactly you're talking to, says registered nurse Teri Dreher, RN, CCRN, president of NShore Patient Advocates. There's a simple solution: Ask.

When someone comes into your room and starts talking, Dreher recommends asking: "What's your name? And what do you do here at the hospital?" It can also be helpful to jot down the person's name and role using a pen and paper or your smart device (more on the value of keeping notes in a moment).

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4. Write Down Questions

As you lie in bed, you may find yourself full of questions — only to have your mind go utterly blank when a nurse or doctor enters the room.

"Sometimes patients say to me, 'I had a question for you, but I forget,'" Dr. Arora says.

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Avoid this by writing down your thoughts or questions as soon as they pop into your head.

"A lot of times, it is difficult to get sleep, you might forget things because of medications or memory impairment," she says. "If you write it down, that allows you to have the ability to ask the question that you want and get the answer," Dr. Arora notes.

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5. Don’t Let People Leave Until You Understand

OK, we're not saying to hold them hostage, but you have a right to understand what's going on, even if people seem rushed. "When doctors come in to talk to you, they usually only want to stay in the room between 2 and 5 minutes," Dreher says. But that might not be enough time for you to understand what's happening.

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"If they haven't explained things properly, patients should not worry about looking 'stupid,'" Dreher says. Better to feel momentary embarrassment than take a medication that's not necessary or agree to a procedure or next step that you don't actually want to undergo.

If there are instructions or explanations that are unclear, or you're not following the consent details provided, simply say, "Hold on, I don't understand what you just said," Dreher recommends. You can also delay decisions until you've had a chance to confer with your loved ones.

If you're concerned about medication interactions or unsure about how a treatment for one issue will affect another health concern, speak up. Ask questions, get clarifications and take notes on what doctors and nurses say. That way you'll have a record of who you spoke to and the gist of your conversation.

Tip

If English isn’t your preferred language, ask for an interpreter or translated materials.

6. Ask for What You Need

Don't hesitate to ask for what you need and see if reasonable accommodations can be made.

One example: middle-of-the-night bloodwork or vitals checks that interrupt your sleep. These are not always necessary, Dr. Arora says. You can ask if they can be skipped, or at least grouped together into one disruptive visit, rather than several.

7. Understand Your Discharge Instructions

People often leave the hospital without understanding their care plan, Dr. Arora says. One study looked at 100 patients being discharged from a Canadian hospital and found 24 percent didn't understand their follow-up care plan, and 42 percent didn't receive full discharge instructions, according to February 2018 findings in the International Journal of Emergency Medicine.

That's problematic for long-term positive outcomes. Aim to ask questions and be an active learner and participant when it's time to leave, Dr. Arora says. "There is this tendency to not want to annoy the care team ... [and there] could also be overwhelm," she says.

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This is a great moment to make sure you have a friend or family member along to listen and ask questions, Dr. Arora says. Throughout your hospital stay, you may have ceded control to your care team. But now that you're going home, "you have to assume care for yourself," she says. That means you need to know exactly what to do and how to take care of yourself, Dr. Arora says. Also important: Know the warning signs that you should return to the hospital.

8. Complain if Necessary

Let's assume the best of everyone in your hospital stay: Surgeons, doctors, nurses and the staffers in environmental services all want you to be healthy. But if something goes awry, and your needs aren't being addressed, some people you can talk to are:

  • The charge nurse, who heads up the department
  • A social worker through the hospital
  • A patient advocate through the hospital

How Loved Ones Can Help

If you're the friend or family member of someone in the hospital, here are a few ways you can offer support:

Keep Track of Things

People in the hospital may be sleep deprived or on medications that make it hard to keep track of everything, Dreher says. Taking notes may seem like a minor task, but it'll help you recognize if one doctor's statement contradicts another's or if medications are being prescribed without checking on interactions.

Ask on Their Behalf

This may feel hard for the patient, and hard for you, too. "Sometimes family members get too shy," Dreher says. Be polite but persistent, she recommends. Tell the nurse, "I'd like to get my mom into the chair for lunch. Can you help me?" or "I'm concerned about XYZ issue. Can you please make sure the doctor comes by to discuss this with us?"

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You can also ask for accommodations. For example, if your loved one is hard of hearing, request a sign be placed on the door or end of their bed that asks staff members to speak up. Hospital employees may be overworked, but your mentality should be that your loved one is more important than the hospital's staffing issues, Dreher says.

Be Polite and Connect

"Always be polite, because [hospital staff] are human beings, too," Dreher says. That means saying thank you often, and expressing your appreciation, as well as offering positive feedback when possible.

Consider getting to know nurses: Being kind and asking about them can go a long way, Dreher says. When you develop a bit of a personal relationship, "they're going to go above and beyond the call of duty for you," she says.

Watch Your Loved One's Personal Hygiene

Because hospitals are so often short-staffed, this can fall by the wayside, Dreher says. That can lead to unbrushed teeth, infrequent showers, unshaved faces and even dehydration. That's not conducive to feeling healthy, but it's also a health risk.

"When you get dehydrated, your mouth gets even more dry, and you can get cracks and fissures and infections, and then you can get bed sores," Dreher says.

Keep an eye on basic human necessities, she says, like making sure your loved one is fed, gets plenty of fluids, moves into a chair if possible, turns to avoid bedsores and so on.

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references

Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.

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