Even in the best hospitals, many people need an advocate to help them monitor medications and make sure that the correct procedure will be performed once they are under anesthesia. The doctors and other health professionals should keep you and your advocate informed about your care, and your progress toward discharge. Many hospitals employ social workers or patient advocates to assist you. Ask for one if you need to.
The Institute of Medicine estimates that the nation's Medicare population alone suffers as many as 980,000 injuries due to medication errors every year. Some studies indicate that more than one-third of the time physicians fail to tell their patients the name of a drug they are prescribing, how to take it, how long to take it, or what type of bad reaction could result from taking it.
If your doctor prescribes a drug, be sure you know what it's for, its name and how and when to take it, whether there could be interactions with the other drugs or supplements you take, and what adverse reactions could occur. You would be wise to ask the cost — a generic may do just as well for you as a brand name drug. When you fill your prescription, make sure it's the drug you were prescribed, not a medication with a similar name. A busy pharmacist can easily mix up medroxyprogestrone, a synthetic female hormone for menopausal problems, with methylprednisolone, a corticosteroid used to treat lupus, or methyphenidate, a stimulant prescribed for ADHD.
If you're concerned about a medication, ask a friend or relative who is a medical professional to help you review the drug, or all of your medications. There are excellent drug information tools on the Internet, such as those at AARP.org and MedicineNet.com; each entry is reviewed by a doctor and a pharmacist.
When to hire a health care advocate
Despite your best efforts, sometimes you need a professional advocate. Individuals and families often require assistance with such tasks as filing a large number of claims for reimbursement, understanding nursing home options, or securing a power of attorney.
Also, if you are facing a difficult diagnosis, you may need another set of eyes and ears. Choose an advocate who is a good listener and won't interrupt. An advocate can remind you of questions you need to ask and help you remember later what the doctor said about the diagnosis, treatment and likely outcomes.
Two websites offer serachable lists of health care advocates: AdvConnection and the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants.
Amanda Spake writes about health and environmental issues for The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, SmartMoney, and AARP Bulletin, among other publications.