Some hospital stays are planned, while others are unexpected. Either way, a hospital visit is less stressful when you understand the process. These tips from hospital insiders provide clarification, and they’ll help you get great care:

1. If you expect to be hospitalized in the near future, prepare your personal items. Hospitalizations are often unexpected, but in cases where it’s likely that you or a loved one will be hospitalized, pack a bag to bring with you. In addition to a change of clothes, bring a phone charger, toiletries, earplugs, and an updated list of your medications. For young patients, bringing their own blankets or pillows may help them feel more at home.

2. Take advantage of additional services available to you during your hospital stay. While you are in the hospital, ask what services are available to you as a patient. Most hospitals have nutritionists, spiritual guides, and a variety of highly trained specialists (including respiratory, occupational, and physical therapists) on site who can visit your room upon request.

3. Take note of the visitor policies before inviting loved ones to visit. Every hospital has different visitor policies, and the policies often differ by department or unit. Visitors are typically only allowed during certain time periods. Due to Covid-19, visitation policies at many hospitals have become more restrictive.

4. Don’t be nervous if you are receiving treatment from a doctor in training. At teaching hospitals, it’s normal to be seen by a doctor in training, such as a resident or fellow. Rest assured, these individuals have completed medical school and received their MD or DO, and they have knowledge of the most cutting-edge treatments and services. Most importantly, your care is being overseen by an attending doctor who has completed all of their training.

5. Doctors typically do not know how much diagnostic tests, treatments, or medications cost at their hospital. Many patients ask their doctor about the costs of services, but your doctor is unlikely to be able to answer this question. The cost of tests and treatments vary by hospital, and the amount you will be expected to pay out of pocket depends on your insurance plan. While a medication may only cost $10 for one person, it could cost ten times as much for someone with a less comprehensive insurance plan.

6. Expect to receive two separate hospital bills. Most physicians are not employed by hospitals. This means you will receive at least two bills after your hospital stay: one from the hospital and one (or more) from your provider(s). When possible, check with your health insurance company ahead of time to make sure you are covered for surgeries and potential emergencies.

7. Your anesthesiologist or NICU doctor might not take your insurance, even if the hospital does. Hospitals sometimes contract with groups of specialty physicians—like anesthesiologists in the operating room or neonatologists in the NICU—but don’t require these groups to accept all insurance plans accepted by the hospital. If you get a total hip replacement, you might get a bill from the anesthesiologist that is not covered by your insurance, even though your insurance company is in network with both the hospital and your surgeon.

8. You can stay overnight in the hospital without being admitted. Many hospitals have “observation” beds where they keep patients who need monitoring, but not full inpatient care. This can get tricky for seniors: if you are sent to a nursing home for rehabilitation following your hospital stay, Medicare will only pay if you were admitted to the hospital. Observation doesn’t count.  

9. To get things done, ask for the Charge Nurse or Nurse Manager. A charge nurse supervises a team of nurses and facilitates communication between other healthcare providers. Charge nurses typically have extensive experience. They can answer your questions and expedite your care.

10. Emergency rooms are busiest Monday afternoons. If possible, avoid visiting ERs during this time, or expect to wait a bit longer to be seen. Alternatively, if your condition is less severe, a visit to urgent care might suffice.

11. ERs are safe even during the Covid-19 pandemic. If you need immediate care or have a medical emergency, don’t let Covid-19 concerns stop you from receiving treatment. Staff in ERs are taking extra precautions to keep patients safe from Covid-19, and they are ready to help you.  

12. You can request a private room. While hospitals cannot always accommodate this request, you have the right to ask for a private room.

13. Many hospitals have VIP floors. When celebrities are admitted to the hospital they are not on the same floor as other patients. Hospitals have VIP floors, and they are not always filled. Ask about them prior to admission.

14. You have the right to see your medical record and test results. A rich source of data and information about your health can be found right in your medical record. In New York State, you have the legal right to see your medical record. Ask for a copy of your record before you leave the hospital, because it is harder once you leave. However, we caution you from trying to interpret test results without the help of a medical professional.

15. You can find out safety and quality information from the federal government. Medicare’s Hospital Compare summarizes up to 57 measures of “quality” that reflect the quality of care at different hospitals. They track such things as death rates for heart attack patients, the rate of surgical site infections, and patient experience.

16. Encourage your medical team to communicate with each other. Hold a team meeting with all of your medical providers. Bringing everyone together can illuminate key points in your care plan, reduce the chances of any miscommunication, and make sure care is aligned.

17. Many hospitals have satellite locations that allow you to get the high quality care provided at a flagship hospital, but closer to your home. Massachusetts General Hospital, for instance, is located in the heart of Boston, a location that is not easily accessible for many individuals. Instead of traveling far to go to MGH, patients can get the same quality of care at one of the hospital’s satellite locations, such as MGH Waltham and MGH Danvers.

18. Don’t assume that requesting an appointment with the Chief of a hospital, department, division, or unit will get you better care. While the Chief is likely a very reputable and experienced doctor, they may see fewer patients compared to their colleagues. A large part of a Chief’s job is administrative and leadership, which limits the amount of time they have to dedicate to patient care.

19. Request time outdoors. Depending on your condition, you may be allowed to spend time outside of the hospital. Ask the nurse to help you and a loved one set this up. Even if it’s just 15 minutes a day, studies show that spending time outdoors can help improve your mental health and help you cope.

20. Ask for undisturbed sleep time. Sleeping in a hospital can be difficult with the combination of bright lights, beeping machines, and medical professionals coming in and out of your room. While this request can’t always be accommodated, ask your clinicians to avoid coming into your room and disturbing you in the middle of the night.

21. Ask your doctor if you are eligible for any clinical trials. Hospitals are continuously running clinical trials for everything from Alzheimer’s to heart disease. Ask your doctor if any of the current trials could be beneficial for you.

22. Express gratitude to hospital staff. Doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff regularly work long, challenging shifts, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, to care for patients. When patients are gracious and show appreciation for their hard work, it makes a difference.

23. Take notes during discharge. Leaving the hospital can be disorienting. You may have several next steps, including making appointments and taking medications. Even if you understand the instructions, it is a good idea to leave with a written discharge plan. Information often gets lost during transitions of care, and this can result in medical errors. It's helpful to have a friend, family member, or health advisor present during these transitions.

Before launching Better Health Advisors, John Samuels spent over two decades in senior healthcare leadership in New York City hospitals. At BHA, he has built a team of carefully selected experts with extensive direct patient care experience in a variety of healthcare areas, including medicine, psychology, administration, case management, dietary, and physical therapy. To borrow a phrase from Hamilton, we've been "in the room where it happens.”  We use this vast expertise to help our clients receive the best possible medical care.