1. Learn what your insurance covers
Canada's publicly funded health-care system pays for many -- but not all -- hospital costs. Know the perks and limitations of your workplace insurance before you arrive at the hospital, says Linda Benn, a registered nurse and patient education coordinator at Capital Health, a network of hospitals, clinics and services based in Halifax. Will your coverage pay for semiprivate accommodation, in-room TV and crutches? Review your policy to see who's responsible for which costs.
Plus, being insurance savvy can save you money. Chris Rokosh, a registered nurse in Calgary, and the president and chief nursing consultant of CanLNC (an organization that provides nursing experts for medical litigation cases), says that if you and your spouse have health insurance from two insurers, you should bring documents from both. "One provider [may] cover partial costs. The other, the remainder," she says.
2. Avoid hospital room rage
Worried about a noisy, snoring roommate? Before donning a hospital gown, ask about getting a semiprivate or private room. According to Benn, "The best way to get the room you want is to ask [during] your first contact with hospital personnel." This could be through a phone call, letter or in-person visit with admissions or a hospital booking officer to arrange your procedure date.
"They should look after it, or refer you to somebody who can," says Benn. Once admitted, if you find yourself in a ward, Kate Mahon, president of the Canadian Association of Critical Care Nurses in Whites Lake, N.S., says to talk to the nurse in charge of the unit, who can adjust your room assignment to make your room a less stressful, more restful place for you.
3. Know what to pack in an overnight hospital bag
Stock your overnight bag with your provincial health card, insurance details, medications in their original containers, glasses and contact lens case. Bring your own shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush, pajamas and slippers. Books, magazines and knitting supplies are all welcome, as are MP3 players. Want to pack your cellphone? Check with the admissions department. Rules differ from hospital to hospital as to whether cellphones are allowed. And remember: It's up to you to keep all of your valuables safe.
"You'll be asked to sign a waiver saying that the hospital isn't responsible for any lost or stolen items," says Darlene Ridley, the data quality and registration lead at Vancouver Coastal Health, a group of hospitals, medical services and research facilities in British Columbia.
If you're worried about battling bedside germs, think about packing some disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer. And don't feel guilty about avoiding the hospital's scratchy twins -- blankets and toilet paper. Toilet paper and a cosy, soft blanket from home are godsends.
Last, but certainly not least, bring a pen and paper. They'll come in handy for writing down any questions you have for your doctor, for taking notes and for filling out forms. Jewelry (including wedding rings and watches), money and credit cards should be left at home.
4. Stay connected with family and friends
Some hospitals -- such as Vancouver General Hospital and Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary -- now have business centres for patients and their families, so they can make phone calls or tend to email. "If you want to bring your laptop, ask whether you'll be able to use it [in your room]," suggests Benn. Some hospitals will give you access to their Wi-Fi, while others prefer that you bring your own mobile Internet stick.
5. Bring a friend
You may be too overwhelmed or unable to fully explain your symptoms to the nurse and doctor. Having a relative or friend who can speak on your behalf helps you and the medical staff. "Doctors appreciate that there's somebody there who's aware of your health history, allergies and medications," says Rokosh. An advocate can also act as an interpreter when English isn't the patient's first language, says Ridley. Just be sure to select only one person for this role. "We don't want five different family members asking for information or speaking on [your] behalf," says Ridley.
6. Know your health history
Until electronic health records are available everywhere, it's imperative that you bring along a summary of your medical history to share with your health-care team. "Make some brief notes: the medications you're on, allergies you have, tests and treatments," says Rokosh. Include any over-the-counter and herbal medications you're taking, and all allergies, including serious reactions to food and environmental materials such as latex.
7. Check out the hospital menu
Not all hospital food is an assault on the taste buds. The meals are nutritious and, best of all, you have options. "Patients have more choice and control over when, how and what they want to eat," says Frances Furmankiewicz, director of business development, nutrition and food services at The Ottawa Hospital.
Many hospitals offer menus, so you can preselect meals and beverages. Let your medical staff know if you have food allergies or specific dietary needs. Still not satisfied? Ask to see a dietitian.
Patients are discouraged from eating food from home or a favourite restaurant, says Furmankiewicz. The hospital is responsible for monitoring how food is stored and heated, and that it's served within the necessary time frame -- things that can't be controlled with outside food.
8. Ask for nonessential services
Help! The nurses are changing shifts and now you need an extra blanket. This situation is easy to avoid. "Request nonessential services when the nurses are making rounds at the beginning of each shift, or when they return to do your assessment," says Rokosh. You can also ask auxiliary staff, such as personal support workers, for nonessential items like tissues and help with the TV.
But if you're experiencing pain, don't wait for the next shift to start. "We know if we don't get [medication] into the patient sooner rather than later," says Mahon, "it will be a bigger issue and can extend their hospital stay."
9. Voice your concerns
If you have a concern or complaint regarding your care, don't be shy. "Be polite and respectful, but never passive," says Rokosh. "Speak to the person directly involved -- the nurse or doctor," adds Benn. "However, if it's a question of a sensitive nature, or you have yet to get a response, talk to the patient representative. Their role is to help solve issues and conflicts."
To speak with a rep, ask the charge nurse for assistance, call the hospital's switchboard to be connected directly or contact them through the hospital's website. Ideally, concerns should be dealt with when and where they happened, says Ridley. Make note of names, dates, times and what happened to make it easier to investigate and resolve.
10. Ask questions
You have the final say in your hospital care, so be involved and ask questions. With knowledge comes a sense of control and reassurance. "Ask about anything you're uncomfortable with or unsure of," says Rokosh. "Ask until you receive a satisfactory answer, even if this means asking numerous people, numerous times." Mahon agrees.
"We'd be happy to explain again," she says. "The patient -- and the family -- are in a partnership with the health-care team. We need to be constantly talking to each other. We both want the best outcome -- to get you out of hospital and home again.
Article original published in Canadian Living Magazine, contributing author Chris Rokosh