Going to the hospital is, for most people, scary and sometimes unpleasant -- but being prepared can help take the edge off your fears.
The first thing to do -- before you even get to the hospital -- is to make sure you're headed to the right one. "This is not a trivial matter," says Mary Jo Kreitzer, a nursing professor at the University of Minnesota. Kreitzer compares selecting a hospital to choosing the right house or car. "You aren't going to be embarrassed in front of the realtor" if you don't choose a certain house, she says. "I think we just have to be educating consumers to think differently."
In Kreitzer's own experience of getting knee replacement surgery, she had to select a different primary care provider to get a referral to a top-notch orthopedic surgeon. "I actually had a surgeon say to me, 'You have to make a simple change to another primary care clinic to get the best surgeon," she says. "That's really how it works." While small hospitals are great for simple, routine things, more complex medical conditions such as cancer or open heart surgery often require going to bigger or specialty hospitals, she adds.
[Read: Your Rights as a Hospital Patient.]
Once you've reached the right hospital, there are a number of things you can do on your journey in order to have a more empowered patient experience.
-- Much like preparing for the airport, going into the hospital involves taking the right documents with you. This means insurance cards, lists of medications, names of doctors and names of family members and friends who need to be contacted if there are emergencies or drastic changes in your status. Even in the age of electronic medical records, Kreitzer, who is also the director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, suggests you "make an old-fashioned notebook. It's critical to just pull out a sheet of paper and start recording information."
-- Know your health provider team. There's a team of people taking care of you, so understand who is on the team and when they make their rounds, Kreitzer says. This is also important information for whoever is accompanying the patient -- be it a family member, friend or in-house [hospital] advocate. "It's very appropriate to ask the nurse or doctor what time they will make rounds so people can be there for critical conversations," Kreitzer says.
-- Bring someone with you. This person -- spouse, friend, social worker or other advocate -- will play a critical role in your experience. That's especially true if you're unable to process information or communicate. This go-to person and other visitors also need to play an active role in your care when they visit you, says Ilene Corina, the founder and president of PULSE of New York, a patient advocacy consultancy. "I could be visiting someone as a friend and still recognize that doctors and nurses need to wash their hands," Corina says. Visitors should go with the idea of helping out, she adds.
-- Speak up. You didn't see your doctor wash his hands before examining you? Ask him or her to do so. There's a right way and a wrong way to do this, Corina says. "They may have really forgotten, so it's not about them doing something wrong," she continues. For that reason, don't be accusatory. Instead, say something like "'I'd feel safer if you wash your hands because I'm fearful of infections,'" she says. If anything else -- like loud noise, the No. 1 patient complaint -- bothers you, say something. And since medicine is complicated, don't be afraid to ask if you don't understand something. "Don't be ashamed to say, 'I don't know what you're talking about,'" Corina says.
-- [Read: Could Your Hospital Make You Sick?]
-- Oversee your own medications and treatments. Don't just take the little white pills in a paper cup, Corina says. "Ask to see the original wrapper for each medication." Also, make sure whoever is administering the medications, or prepping you for a procedure, asks you for your name and date of birth. An average of 40 wrong procedures per week occur in the U.S., according to The Joint Commission, the organization that accredits hospitals. "That's 100 percent preventable," Corina adds. Kreitzer says patients should also ask about alternative medications and therapies like acupuncture for pain or nausea. Integrative care is becoming a more prominent feature of medicine, so ask about it.
-- Personalize your space. Especially if you're headed for a long-term stay, make the hospital your temporary home. Bring pictures to put on the wall; ask the staff to give you a shelf for pictures, books, your own music and anything else that gives you comfort. If you didn't have time to think of these comforts of home, ask a visitor to do it for you. Corina will print out patients' Facebook photos and hang them on the walls. "It also gives health care professionals a sense that you had a life before you were lying in a bed."
-- [Read: Public Safety at Hospitals: Are You Safe?]
-- Call in a third party. This can be a professional, neighbor or person from your religious community -- someone who is a little detached, Corina says. As an advocate herself, "I get involved with families who are emotionally drained, tired and confused," Corina says, adding that she becomes the person who helps organize patient care and ask the right questions. Having a representative from a religious community can also be a segueway to assigning spirituality to your hospital stay. "Spirituality may or may not be linked to religion. It's not enough to ask people, 'Are you part of a religion? Do you want to see a priest or rabbi?'" Corina says. "Ask questions that get at meaning like, 'What spiritual practices are important to you that we should know about?'"
-- Prepare for discharge. The best part of your stay, at least psychologically, may be planning for its end. Beyond your excitement, though, do your due diligence. "Think of it as an extension of your hospital stay, and be prepared to find medications, even equipment, on your own," Kreitzer says. Hospitals, too, need to better prepare patients for discharge, and penalties for readmissions formalized by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services are starting to enforce that, she adds. Even if you successfully avoid readmission, you will likely encounter your health providers again, Kreitzer says. "One of the most important things in terms of healing is relationships and continuity of care," so establish good relationships with your health providers.
[Read: How To Survive Your Hospital Stay.]