My mother was recently hospitalized. As is typical for a woman
of 85 years, her problems were not limited to one medical
specialty. During this experience, I learned that it's critical in
today's health system to be aware of everything that is going on,
and to raise your voice when things seem out of sync. It's ok to
ask questions. It's dangerous not to.
My mother went to the emergency room of a local hospital three
times. She was admitted overnight the first two times and was
finally diagnosed and admitted for care on the third visit. While
in the hospital, a specialist was overseeing her care, but we had
to reach out to her primary care doctor to make sure he knew about
the admission. During her time in the hospital, she required care
from two other specialists and ended up with a surgical procedure
by a fourth. She's recovering nicely now, thank heaven.
I learned a few things during this process:
1. Doctors only deal with the symptoms that fall under their
expertise. ER doctors treat the immediate critical problem.
Infectious disease doctors treat infection. Gastroenterologists
treat digestive issues. Cardiologists treat heart and pulmonary
issues.Don't assume doctors talk with each other. It's their job to
address the issues that apply to them, but they don't always have
time to address the whole patient. The specialist in charge of my
mother's hospital care wanted to discharge her one week into the
third admission. But there was no progress on why she had gotten
sick in the first place. She dug in her heels in, spoke up, and
said, "I'm not going home until you figure out what is wrong with
me. I don't want to come back a fourth time." She called her
primary care doctor and he intervened by pulling in other
My mother had the conviction to demand answers. But for other
patients, it's not as easy. That's why the National Patient Safety
Foundation launched the
Ask Me 3 campaign, a patient education program designed to
improve patient-provider communication and encourage patients to
ask:What is my main problem? What do I need to do? Why is it
important for me to do this?
2. Doctors are pressed for time, and they work fast. I was with
my mother when one of the specialists, who had seen her before,
asked about her symptoms when she was admitted. She had three
admissions, so she started with the first one. He was impatient and
cut her off before the whole story could be told. I filled in some
details and he responded, "You never told me that." It changed her
whole course of treatment. I felt lucky I was there at that time.
Don't let someone cut you off. Make sure you say everything you
need to say.
3. Don't assume doctors remember anything you told them before.
Information gets logged in medical records, but I was surprised how
many times my mother was asked to repeat the same information about
her symptoms and treatment by people I felt should have known it.
Again, don't sit quietly by. Make sure the doctor providing care
right now knows what happened yesterday
4. Your primary care doctor won't know anything unless you let
him or her know. The hospital-based doctors only contact primary
care doctors if you pressure them to do so. If you don't have a
doctor to navigate the options for your care, you'll need to do it.
Don't be shy.
5. Elderly patients do not always get the same level of care.
I'm convinced that my mother would have had more careful attention
if she had been 25 years younger with the same symptoms. Family
vigilance is critical.
What does all this mean? To me, it means that my mother, my
family, and I need to track everything that happens, ask a lot of
questions, and make sure care is in sync. It's too easy for one
doctor to make a decision that might not be the best decision based
on knowledge held by another doctor. I have nothing but respect for
the doctors who cared for my mother. But we learned that speaking
up rather than stepping back was the only way to make sure her care