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Doctors, Prescriptions and Hospital Bills: a Caregiver's Guide

An advocate is important when caring for a loved one

As our parents and loved ones get older, it takes a lot more time — and attention from a lot more people — to maintain their good health. Managing doctor appointments, refilling prescriptions and tracking insurance bills can be overwhelming for patients and caregivers. A trusted family member or friend can certainly be an effective health care advocate, but if you have taken on — or about to take on — such a role, here are some things to keep in mind.

See also: Take control of your health care.

AARP Caregiving Resource Center information about helping manage healthcare decisions for senior parents

A trusted family member or friend can help manage health care, including doctor appointments. — Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

When visiting the doctor's office:

First, gently ask your parent whether he or she needs or wants your help communicating with the doctor. If your parent agrees, talk to each other about the questions before the appointment — and write them down. During the visit, let your parent take the lead in talking to the doctor. If a question is overlooked or not answered, then follow up. Ask for any explanation of unclear terms or direction. Take notes or, if the doctor allows, record the conversation.

When refilling prescription medicine:

If you will be picking up your parent's medicine, it's a good idea to get to know your local pharmacist. Find out when your parent should be taking the prescription, whether there are generic alternatives, whether the pill can be crushed or split, and ask about side effects and any adverse drug interactions. At home, make sure the medicine is stored in a cool, dry, convenient place. A drawer in the kitchen may be better than an upstairs medicine cabinet. You might consider using organizer or reminder systems, such as electronic pill containers or beepers.

If hospitalization is required:

If your parent needs to be hospitalized, it's important to track his or her care and keep organized.

Before admission, make sure the hospital is the right choice. Does it provide specialized care in your loved one's condition? What is the nurse-to-patient ratio? What follow-up services does the hospital provide? Contact the insurance carriers to be sure the policy will cover the required treatment, and proactively speak with the hospital admission or business office about any questions you have.

When checking in, help provide vital information about your parent, bring medications, advanced directives and doctor's contact information. Don't be afraid to directly request the best set up available — a private room, with a view, etc. Get to know the people who will be providing care and tell them your parent's likes and dislikes. Advise the nurses that you are the go-to person for information about status and care, and be sure other family members know this too.

During your loved one's hospital stay, keep a journal and ask questions about treatment options. Every patient has a right to review his medical records and have terms explained clearly. When problems arise, be calm, but firm. Find out who the hospital patient representative is who can help you resolve any disputes.

Handling billing and insurance claims:

Hospital bills can be complex and, unfortunately, erroneous. If you are organized, skillful with numbers and tenacious, you can be helpful to your parents. If you suspect an error, request a copy of the patient's medical record. Check the records against the bills and follow-up with the insurance company on any questionable charges. Be sure not to put off addressing any billing errors, as most hospitals turn unpaid bills over to collection agencies within 90 days.

For health insurance claims, state and federal laws protect patients. If you think your insurer is wrongly denying a claim, reach out to member services and ask about the appeal process. As a last resort, you can file a written complaint with your state insurance regulation office.

You may also like: Share your caregiving tips. »

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