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Taking Charge of Your Hospital Stay

Experts explain four steps that empower patients to manage their health needs from a hospital bed.

Step 3: Learn Your Rights

When it comes to preparing for a hospital stay, experts say perhaps nothing is more important than realizing you do have rights as a patient. And taking the time to learn what they are can serve you well in many situations.

Among the most important of those entitlements, says Burke, is the right to receive an explanation of any treatment being prescribed, and the right to ask for that explanation as many times as necessary until you fully comprehend it. Also important to note: You can ask for that explanation in your native language, even if you speak English.

Perhaps most important, says Burke, is to remember every patient has the right to refuse any treatment -- including tests.

"If you don't understand why a test was ordered, or why a medication was changed, or you have any question at all about your care, you have the right to refuse that care until you can find out more. And very often it is the patient advocate who can intercede and get you those answers, if you just reach out to them," says Burke.

Step 4: Plan Ahead

While ultimately your hospital stay may go smoothly, experts warn that few patients are prepared for what happens when they return home. Common sense dictates we won't be discharged until we are well, but over the years the very definition of that word has changed, and dramatically.

"People don't expect to leave in pain, and very often they do. They don't expect that they are going to have to find a lot of their postoperative equipment on their own -- like a hospital bed or a commode -- and they do. And all of this can be doubly difficult if you are unprepared," says Susan Reinhard, co-director of the Rutgers Center for State Health Policy, specializing in empowering health care choices for consumers.

Indeed, while even routine medical events -- like having a baby -- once came with a minimal 10- day hospital stay, Reinhard tells WebMD that today, patients having even the most difficult and complex surgeries are often discharged within three or four days.

"Recuperation that used to take place in a hospital must now take place at home, and patients need to be aware of that, and to be aware that they will likely be going home long before they themselves feel they are ready," she says.

While admittedly it's difficult to prepare for a hospitalization that is unexpected, Reinhard says if you have a chronic illness or you're simply getting on in years, it's important to focus on what your daily needs are, and think about how you'd cope if you weren't functioning at full capacity.

Then, she says, try to figure out ways to compensate and make whatever arrangements you can before going into the hospital.

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