Whether a hospital stay is planned or unexpected, being in the hospital can be a very stressful experience. You probably know that it can be a dangerous time for complications like infections, falls, and medical errors. But what most of us don’t realize is that leaving the hospital unprepared can be dangerous as well.
If you’re heading home from the hospital without a clear plan for what medicines to take, when to follow up, and who to call if there are problems, you’re at much greater risk of getting sicker or ending up back in the hospital – possibly in worse condition than before.
Here are some tips that can help you get home in the best shape:
Understand why the hospitalization happened. Though this may seem obvious, a lot of my patients can’t tell me why they were hospitalized – was is heart failure? A heart attack? Fluid around the heart? This is key to understanding what you can do to prevent another hospital stay in the future. And don’t let the medical lingo trip you up – if the doctors or nurses are talking in “medical-ese” stop them and ask them to translate to plain language so that you can understand.
Figure out where you will be safest after discharge. While you may be very eager to get back to your own home, it may not be the best place for you immediately after you leave the hospital. Ask yourself: If you do go straight home, is there a family member who can stay with you and help you? Would a rehabilitation facility be the best “in between” before home? Where will you get the most support? If you end up leaving the hospital needing regular physical therapy or extensive wound care and no one at home is able to help you, it might be safest to spend some time getting stronger before going home.
Wherever you decide to go, start preparing very early on, and keep your medical team in the loop so they can help you set up services at home. Think about stairs and other tripping hazards and try to have a safe place ready before you leave the hospital.
Get trained on medicines and new equipment. Identify the specific people that will be helping you after discharge and make sure they get trained directly by the nurse. It’s not enough to just have instructions read to you – you (and your support person(s)) need to have a thorough understanding of how to do things like administer an injection (if needed) at home, when to give different medicines, how to use a walker, and how often to change wound dressings. Also, don’t assume that your doctors know what medicines you already have at home. Many people get sick after they leave the hospital because they start taking their new hospital medicines AND their old home medicines. Have someone bring in every medicine you have at home so your team can clearly tell you what to start and what to stop.
Schedule follow-up appointments. Make sure you have follow-up appointments scheduled (and at times that you can actually keep them). These appointments can mean the difference between healing well or heading back to the hospital – they give your doctor the opportunity to monitor your progress (and catch any problems), as well as make sure you have all of the supplies that you need and confirm that your new medicines aren’t causing problems. And, many medicines may require follow-up lab tests to make sure that you are getting better, so it’s very important that you get to your follow-up appointments.
Know the red flags. Before you leave the hospital, you should know the warning signs that need urgent attention. Before you leave, ask for a list of red flags and who to call with questions. For example, if you go home after a heart failure hospital stay and your legs start to swell up again, you need to speak with your doctor right away. If you know what to watch out for and what to do when you see the warning signs, then you may be able to prevent another hospital stay.
Though spending time in the hospital can be overwhelming, you and your loved ones can work closely with the medical team to make sure you safely get home and stay home.