The Medical Consumer - Navigating the Hospital Environment

There is no setting more likely to make people feel defensive than a hospital. Hospitals are unfamiliar—simply finding the way from a patient's room to the cafeteria may require a map. And they are intimidating—full of high-tech equipment and people who seem so busy that you hesitate to ask a question.

For caregivers already anxious about their loved one's well-being, hospitals can feel completely overwhelming. In these circumstances, it's very hard for caregivers to monitor their loved one's care, take notes, and intervene with doctors and nurses as necessary, while staying calm and cheerful.

One way to defuse your anxiety is to make yourself at home. Once you get your loved one settled, walk around the ward, locate the cafeteria, and find a pleasant waiting area. Add a few personal touches to your loved one's room—like flowers or photographs—and make sure you have enough reading material to pass the time.

Hospitals are highly regimented places in which the staff has to adhere to a strict timetable. Part of making yourself at home in a hospital is learning that routine. Find out when meals are served and when shifts change. In particular, make a point of being on hand when a new team comes on duty. Nurses expect to spend a little time answering questions while making their introductions and are prepared to give you their full attention. Take this opportunity to ask about the day's schedule—to find out, for instance, when your loved one's doctor is expected on the floor or when a test is to be administered. You can also satisfy your curiosity about the purpose of the equipment in the room.

Most of all, use every interaction with the hospital staff as an occasion to build a relationship. Greet staff members by name, find out a little about their interests outside the hospital, and let them know how much you appreciate their caring for your loved one. When you treat staff members as allies rather than adversaries, you'll find yourself more at ease making your loved one's needs known, and you'll increase the chances that hospital staff will respond in ways that you—and your loved one—will appreciate.