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The Art of Getting Updates on a Hospitalized Patient

It can be challenging, but there are steps you can take to make the process go smoother

By Kathleen Doheny

As a professor of fashion design at Pasadena City College in California, Sunny Cannon, 46, is an expert in her field. But when her husband, author Jeff Sweat, who turns 50 this year, was hospitalized with COVID-19 recently, she had to learn a whole new language — "medicalese" (specialized medical terminology) often delivered at lightning speed by an overworked doctor at the end of a long day.

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Over the next several weeks, as her husband "graduated" from being in the ICU on a ventilator to a rehab program, Cannon perfected the fine art of getting crucial medical information about a family member.

If you're trying to reach a nurse, find out what time the shift changes and give everyone time to settle in first.

Among her many discoveries: "The night nurses are spectacular."

Hospitalizations during the pandemic are especially challenging due to tighter visitor restrictions, but getting medical information at any time can be difficult when a loved one is receiving care.

Here's what the experts — both health care personnel and the self-made experts like Cannon — suggest can help.

Be Aware of Hospital Policies and Privacy Concerns

Under the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) law, patients have a right to protect their personal health information, but also the right to allow their doctor to share it with the people they approve.

Beyond HIPAA, the policies about sharing medical information vary from hospital to hospital. There is no official policy set by the American Hospital Association, but the organization does encourage having just one loved one communicate with the staff to avoid overwhelming the health care workers.

At Penn Medicine, for instance, patients are asked to choose one person to talk with the hospital team during their stay. 

Another procedure a hospital may follow is to ask approved contacts to provide the health care team with a code when they call, to show they are on the list.

The Value of a Point Person

The idea of having a point person is a good one, says Caitlin Donovan, a representative for the National Patient Advocate Foundation in Washington, D.C. Ask a nurse or another hospital staffer to write that person's name and the best way to contact him or her on the hospital room contact board, she says, to make it easy to find them. The point person can then disseminate information to other family members.

"I would ask the same question over and over until I got an answer."

If just one person per patient communicates with the medical staff that also gives nurses more time to spend with patients, says Patricia Meade, president of the Illinois Nurses Association and a nurse at AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet, Ill.

That's especially true during COVID-19, she says, when visits may be minimal or prohibited. When family can't be there for patients, "we try to be that surrogate family for them," says Meade.

Educate Yourself  

Learning all you can about the patient's condition helps, too. "I read medical journal after medical journal," says Cannon. She also recommends writing down questions and concerns so you're ready to talk with a health professional in the hospital once you get a callback or health care members answer your call.

Be ready with follow up questions or to ask again if you don't get satisfaction the first time. "I would ask the same question over and over until I got an answer," Cannon says.

Be Assertive but Diplomatic

It's a stressful time, but keeping your cool when talking to medical staff is crucial. "The last thing you want is to sever that connection," says Donovan. She suggests developing a good relationship with the patient' primary physician first. "Build up that person-to-person relationship," she says.

You can also briefly tell the doctor or nurse a bit about the person — his or her favorite sport, family life details, work information — so the patient is more than a number.

Be prepared to talk to different members of the health care team, adds Donovan, as doctors take needed days off and specialists change when a person's condition changes.

Reach Out to the Nurses  

While the doctors have a wealth of information about treatment and the patient's medical outlook, Donovan says, "a nurse might have a better idea of how [patients] are doing emotionally."

So true, agrees Cannon, who sings the praises of the nurses — especially the night shift staff who helped her husband.

"His first night nurse, Honey, was amazing," she says. One evening, she told Cannon, "I feel like he just needs to hear your voice. I will set up a Zoom call and you can tell him about your day."

"Ask if there is a good time to call or visit."

The nurse turned Sweat's bed to the window first so he could see the spectacular sunset. She did all this, Cannon says, despite the fact that Sweat was, at the time, sedated and intubated. The nurse just thought it might make a difference and it did, says Cannon. Sweat recovered and is now home.

Mary Howard, a chiropractor in Los Angeles, depended on nurses to keep her updated on the progress of her husband while he was hospitalized. "They know if the patient is in pain," she says. "Ask the nurse when the patient is most alert, so you can FaceTime then," adds Howard.

Nurses can also answer many medication questions, she finds. And they can brief you by looking at the medical notes.

Research the Best Call Times

"The first time you call or visit [a doctor], ask if there is a good time to call or visit [the hospital]," says Dr. John Raimo, associate professor of medicine at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, N.Y. and chair of medicine at Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, N.Y.

If you're trying to reach a nurse, find out what time the shift changes and give everyone time to settle in first, Cannon suggests.


Manage Expectations

How often you should expect an update on your loved one will depend on the patient's condition, Raimo says, and possibly on the patient's wishes. He views a daily update as generally reasonable.

While family may grow impatient waiting for an update call that comes late in the day, Raimo says there is good reason for that timetable. "The mornings in particular are very busy at hospitals," he says, "and a doctor wants to see patients first [before updating loved ones]. We try to call back in the afternoon, as it is a more meaningful dialogue."

Get Extra Help When Needed

When you aren't getting the information you need from the staff, ask if the hospital has a patient advocate or a social worker to talk to, recommends Donovan. "I wouldn't make that the first call, right off the bat," she says. "But if you feel frustrated, calling them and asking for help is an easy move to make."

If the medical jargon is overwhelming, say so and ask for more explanation, Raimo says. And if a family member is not a native English speaker, ''don't be afraid to ask for an interpreter," he adds.

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who writes about health and lifestyle topics. Read More
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