Even under the best of circumstances, in a reputable hospital with doctors you trust, hospitalization is inherently traumatic. Most likely, this is a new or infrequent experience, and you are stressed out, not knowing what to expect. Before admission, you stumbled in a haze of preparations – taking special medications, fasting, scrubbing with a sterile body wash. You staggered through a maze of small-print forms that demanded insurance information and details of your medical history.
Now, you are about to be anesthetized or sedated . . . precisely when you could need to make life-or-death decisions.
No matter how prepared you think you are, a family member or friend at your side can provide more than comfort. He or she can help you navigate the health care system and serve as an advocate for your best interests if you are confused or your judgment is impaired.
Hospitals are supposed to save lives . . . but sometimes they can be deadly.
In the last decade, patient safety has been threatened by the skyrocketing number of deadly medical errors, including hospital-acquired infections and medication mistakes.
In 1999, the Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project issued a groundbreaking report estimating that 98,000 Americans die each year from medical errors. Ten years later, despite Congressional hearings and promises, project director Lisa McGiffert says that a million lives have been lost to errors that could have been prevented. Major culprits are medication mistakes such as prescribing or administering the wrong drug, providing the wrong dose, or using the wrong route to administer the dosage.
Other potential minefields of hospitalization and/or surgery include:
- Insufficient or inaccurate information in medical charts
- Failure to heed warnings about allergies to medications such as penicillin
- Surgery or treatment of the wrong body area
- Unnecessary exposure to hospital infections
- Lack of information about diagnosis and prognosis
- Inadequate instructions for post-surgery care and medications
Your advocate can be a family member or friend, or a professional Patient Representative. The job is to be your eyes and ears.
An advocate is merely a supporter – someone who is on your side, willing and able to ask questions, cut through the bureaucratic red tape, and take action on your behalf. So your advocate should be someone you trust, with whom you can talk candidly and share your most personal information . . . a spouse or child, a close friend, your minister, or even a nurse or social worker designated by the hospital as a Patient Representative.
Your advocate’s most important job is to gather information to help you choose options for treatment and assist you in making important decisions about your health. This means asking question after question after question, even though doctors – especially surgeons – can be intimidating. This means clarifying information about diagnostic tests and procedures, making sure that medical jargon is translated into language you can understand.
This also means writing down instructions for post-surgery care, such as:
- Timing and frequency of medications
- How to handle dressing and bandages
- When and what you can eat
- Warning signs of complications
- Who to contact in case of emergency
- Follow up appointments
Make sure your advocate knows how to reach family members to convey information and, in case of emergency, to seek input into critical decisions about your health.
While most hospital experiences go well and you recover quickly and comfortably, it does not hurt to be prepared in case things go wrong. Before your surgery or hospitalization, you should talk with family members about your treatment options in end-of-life circumstances, and who you want to make decisions if you should be incapacitated.
If your patient advocate is not a family member, make sure that your family understands who will be accompanying you, what that person’s role will be, and how to reach him or her.
Even more important, make sure your advocate is armed with legal documents that might be needed, such as your living will and medical power of attorney.
Here are some legal documents that you should execute before your hospitalization and provide to your hospital and doctor. These are often called “advance directives” or “health care directives.” No matter your age or your condition, it is a good idea to have these directives on hand in case you are not able to communicate your wishes about your health care.
- A living will is not the same as a will or trust you prepare to leave property to your heirs. In a living will, you put in writing your specific wishes about the kind of medical treatment you do and do not want to receive. You can address, for example, whether or not you want CPR or other resuscitation measures, mechanical respiration and ventilation, or feeding tubes and hydration assistance.
- A medical power of attorney (POA) designates a specific individual – usually a family member – to be your health care agent and make medical decisions if you are incapacitated. This is sometimes called a durable power of attorney for health care, and is not the same as a power of attorney that authorizes financial decisions.
- If you have decided you do not want to be resuscitated if your heart should stop beating, you should consider having an executed Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order on file with the hospital and your doctor. A DNR alerts medical personnel that you do not want any life-saving or life-prolonging measures.
- You can also express your intent to donate organs, eyes, and tissues for transplant or medical research. Although you are unlikely to cover every contingency, your family and health care providers will be guided by your written intentions.
State laws vary regarding advance directives, so you may want to consult an attorney.
If you want to learn more about legal documents associated with health care and end-of-life needs, the attorneys at Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley are available for a free initial consultation. Just complete the Contact Form or call us at 800-780-8607 to schedule an appointment.