A female doctor looks at her patient while discussing post-surgery discharge orders.
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How to advocate for a loved one post-surgery

You’ve booked your surgery, packed your bags, and soon you’ll be leaving for the hospital.

Now it’s time to start thinking about your post-surgery stay. How should you prepare? How will you get the information you need? And how can you be a good advocate for yourself or a loved one?

We asked Dr. Howard Willson, former Department Chief of Emergency Medicine at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, what he recommends when you or a family member are preparing for your inpatient hospital stay.

Q: What should you do right away when entering the hospital room, if you or a family member are having surgery?

I always suggest meeting the nurse assigned to you. Normally, they’ll come and meet you soon after admission. You’ll likely see a handful of professionals, so ask the nurse who to expect, or ask each person who they are and what their role is.

Q: What should people consider in terms of surgery?

First, I would understand all your options for surgery. Is this the right time? Is this the right procedure?

Second, I would understand the risks: What could go wrong, and how do we prevent it? I recommend people find how long the surgery will last, how long they’ll be in the hospital post-surgery, and what limitations they’ll have.

You should also vet your doctor in terms of experience. Look for surgeons who do a lot of your types of surgeries each year.

Q: How can family members advocate for loved ones post-surgery?

Ask questions. For example, “What’s that medication you’re giving through the IV, and what’s it for?” Mistakes happen in the hospital, and simply asking questions or double-checking can help avoid many of them. You can also make sure the hospital staff knows about any allergies your family member has.

Also, hospitals often look for certain criteria to be met before they discharge patients: Are they able to tolerate food, walk on their own, have had no fever for 24 hours, etc.? Find out what those criteria are.

Q: What if the person out of surgery has no family member present? How should they handle discharge orders?

I recommend you always get a printed copy of the discharge order. That way you can review it anytime with your family. If you don’t get a printed copy, repeat the order back to the person discharging you. That’s a good test for knowing if you completely understand them.

Q: How can people shorten their post-surgery stays in the hospital?

Being in as good physical shape as possible before the surgery will often help.

Q: How can people combat potential bacteria in their hospital room?

Most rooms have a Purell antibacterial gel dispenser. Everyone entering the room is supposed to use it to clean their hands.

Make sure they do — nurses, doctors, everyone. Antibacterial gel is shown to markedly decrease hospital-caused infections, so this little gesture has a big effect. No doctor or nurse should feel offended if you ask nicely.

Q: Any tips on “working the hospital system?”

Your nurse probably has the biggest impact on your day-to-day care. To the extent you can, being grateful or taking a little time to get to know your nurse and nurse’s aide can make a big difference. I’ve seen family members bring in a box of doughnuts for the nurses’ station (the area where all the nurses work).

It shouldn’t make a difference, but these are human beings who are influenced by gestures of appreciation. I’m not saying you have to do that specifically, but even a verbal thank you is helpful. Just being a nice, reasonable person helps a lot.

On the other hand, if you feel that a nurse is being rude or not caring for your loved one in a timely way, you should speak to the charge nurse (the head nurse on your floor). You can even call, write, or email the CEO. Nobody in a position of power wants an unhappy patient.

Q: What doesn’t the hospital staff want you to know?

Mistakes happen quite frequently — even in good hospitals. Most are not serious or are caught before they cause a big problem, but not always.

Fortunately, hospitals are better at putting systems into place to reduce mistakes, but they definitely still exist. That’s why it’s helpful to advocate for a loved one who is in the hospital. You may think to yourself, “Well, I don’t know anything about medicine,” but just asking questions helps ensure your doctors and nurses are thinking things through extra carefully!

Dr. Willson was the Department Chief of Emergency Medicine at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. He received a BA from Dartmouth, an M.D. from the University of Illinois College of Medicine, and an MBA from Wharton.

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