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When a Loved One Is Hospitalized

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When a loved one is hospitalized, it's easy to feel helpless. I know because my husband has been in the hospital 14 times over the past 24 years. What I've learned is that my role as advocate is just as important to his recovery as the roles of doctors and nurses. Sometimes I have been directly involved in critical care decisions, and at least once I helped make the difference between my husband's life and death.

Being an effective patient advocate starts with being an educated consumer. Most people don't buy cars, make foreign travel plans or even pick a movie without doing some research. But when it comes to health care – arguably the most important area of all – far too many of us feel powerless, unable or unwilling to ask tough questions, assert our rights or get second opinions. Hospital patients are usually too sick to advocate for themselves, so it falls to family members, partners or good friends to speak for them.

Strong advocacy is built on a foundation of knowledge that is bolstered by communication and confidence.

Knowledge: The first step in patient advocacy is information. Learn as much as you reasonably can about your loved one's condition. There are plenty of resources to guide you – good websites like this one, books, librarians, family doctors and other medical experts. You probably won't find everything you need all in one place. If you're in the midst of a crisis, ask a friend or other family member to do research for you.

Communication: Try to get face time with your loved one's doctor. This is not always easy. Doctors typically make rounds very early in the morning. If you can't be at the hospital then, let the nurse know that you need to talk to the doctor. A personal appointment is best, but you may have to settle for a phone call. Either way, it's important that you understand the diagnosis and treatment. Ask about benefits, risks, options and expected outcomes. Don't be afraid to question the course of action or call for a second opinion. Confident doctors should welcome patient and family involvement in decision making.

Equally important, make sure that the doctor knows your loved one's medical history. Nowadays, hospitalists – doctors specializing in hospital medicine – often oversee patient care. Your loved one's primary care physician may not be involved. What's more, the medical file may be incomplete or contain an error. Omissions or mistakes can prove serious, even life-threatening.

Once, when my husband was hospitalized, an orderly arrived to take him for an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan. The orderly said it had been ordered by a doctor. I told him that my husband has a pacemaker, and an MRI could make the pacemaker stop working. Another time, I stopped an order for a CT (computerized tomography) scan using contrast dye. My husband has a history of serious kidney complications resulting from the dye.

Confidence: You may not have a medical degree, but you have intelligence and instincts. Trust them. If something seems wrong, call for a nurse or doctor. Press for answers to nagging questions. There is no way that anyone in the hospital can know your loved one and his or her history as well as you do. Your direct involvement can make all the difference.

A number of years ago my husband was gravely ill in the intensive care unit for weeks. Many doctors visited dutifully every day, each pronouncing specific organs and systems to be functioning acceptably. But I honestly believed he was dying and asked another doctor I knew for advice. He thought I was right and suggested calling in an intensivist, a physician specializing in intensive care. Though common today, it was a new specialty then. The intensivist made changes to my husband's treatment that brought gradual improvements and saved his life.

I shudder to think what might have happened without the intensivist's involvement. For me, a mix of knowledge, communication and assurance form the bedrock of my efforts as an advocate for my husband. To that blend I add a dose of chutzpah, the terrific Yiddish word combining gumption, moxie and savvy. Add a pinch of diplomacy, patience and perseverance. You'll need them all to help care for someone you love.

More Blog Posts by Bonnie Friedman

author bio

Bonnie Friedman is a professional communicator specializing in patient advocacy, worker safety and health, and related issues. Prior to starting her own business, she served as communications director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and worked at other federal agencies including the National Institutes of Health. She is currently writing a book on how to advocate for a loved one in the hospital. You can follow her on Twitter at @bonniecomm.


Tags for this article:
Caregiving   Bonnie Friedman   Accidents and Safety   Aging Well   Inside Healthcare   Patient Engagement   Communicate with your Doctors   Make Good Treatment Decisions   Participate in your Treatment  


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Karen R. Koenig, LCSW says
March 26, 2014 at 2:33 PM

Having been in the hospital myself on occasion, I value what Bonnie Friedman has to say about what people can do to help a loved one in the hospital. Her points make all the difference to a patient's recovery--or lack therefore. I think that we are often afraid to make requests or go up against doctors and nurses. It's how we're socialized to respond in these situations. And then we end up mostly feeling helpless. But Friedman let's us know that medical staff are all too human and that sometimes you don't get second chances to do what's best for the patient. Give this article to all your friends and family for the next time a loved one is in the hospital.

Karen Shughart says
March 27, 2014 at 12:30 PM

Bonnie Friedman has keen insight and real-life experience when it comes to advocacy and patient care. This information is extremely beneficial to families and individuals dealing with the critical illness of a loved one,and her pointers and suggestions not only make sense but also can, if followed, make the experience of acting as an advocate much less daunting, thereby resulting in a more egalitarian relationship with medical staff.