Health Care Advocates & How To Be One For You And Yours


When you or a loved one goes in for surgery, you have an important job to do: Be an advocate. To do that, you need to understand that role. So, what does it mean to be an advocate?

In today’s busy, complicated healthcare environment, it’s not enough for patients to come in to the hospital and trust their healthcare providers to take care of them. While healthcare providers do the best they can, patients and their family members also need to be active members of the healthcare team.

Being an advocate means participating in the care that you or your loved one gets in the hospital. No one else will be able to pay as close attention to the care that you’re getting, or to spend as much time in your hospital room as you will. Being an advocate means sticking up for yourself, and it means taking responsibility for making sure that the people taking care of you do some things that they’re supposed to do.

At first, you might be concerned that speaking up might offend the doctors and nurses caring for you. As a member of a surgical team, I know we can get busy and distracted, and I always appreciate it when patients or their family members ask good questions to show that they’re looking out for themselves. We may not always have the time to answer all your questions right away, but you should expect your healthcare team to address your concerns in a timely way.

Some patients are concerned that their healthcare team will think that they are obnoxious or demanding if they ask questions or remind their team about their particular needs. So long as you respect basic rules of politeness and understand that your team may not be able to meet every need right away, that’s almost never a problem.

Here are some basic things that patients and family members can do. As always, this isn’t a complete list. But by asking these questions, you’ll show your team that you’re paying attention to the details, and remind them that they should, too.

  • Introductions: Every person who comes into your room should introduce themselves and explain the role that they play in your care. That includes your attending surgeon, any surgical residents, the nurses, the food services staff, and the housekeepers. Feel free to ask anyone coming in to your room to introduce themselves if they don’t.
  • Informed consent: As I described in my last post, patients and their families play an essential role in deciding what, if any, operation your surgeon should perform. Be sure that your surgeon discusses the risks, benefits, and alternatives to any proposed procedure, before you sign the informed consent form.
  • Site marking: A surgery on the wrong body part, what doctors call “wrong-site surgery,” is incredibly rare – between 0.09 and 4.5 events per 10,000 operations. But you don’t want to be that unfortunate one in many, many thousands of people.  When it’s time for you to go to the operating room for a procedure, it’s both your and your surgeon’s responsibility to be sure that the proper site is clearly marked beforehand. DO NOT mark the site yourself, or mark the other side with a “no” or other sign. That can be confusing to operating room staff and increase the chances of a wrong site operation. Instead, be sure that your surgeon marks the appropriate side with a clear mark, using an indelible marker on your skin.
  • Hand hygiene: Everyone who touches you in the hospital should clean their hands before and afterward. That can mean washing their hands with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.  Either way, you should watch to be sure that your provider has washed his or her hands on the way into your room, and if they haven’t, remind them to. If you are polite about it, no one will be offended. Your surgical team has a lot on their minds and lots of patients to see, and they’ll appreciate the reminder…no one wants to be a disease vector.
  • Diet. One of the most common errors that I see in the hospital is patients receiving inappropriate menus or trays meant for other patients. Particularly if you’ve had abdominal surgery, you may have very specific dietary restrictions, or maybe you are not supposed to eat at all. Pay close attention to your team’s diet plan, and if a meal appears that doesn’t seem right, ask your nurse to be sure that it’s meant for you.
  • Medications. When nurses come to give you medications, it’s their job to tell you what medications they’re giving, and it’s your job to ask if they don’t tell you. If you have a question about a medication, if the dose seems wrong, or if it’s a medicine that you have a known allergy or intolerance to, speak up.

The most important thing is to be sure that if you have a question: Ask. Because your surgery team or nurse may not be immediately available when you have a question, keep a pen and paper near you, and write your questions down when you think of them so that they’re immediately on hand when your team comes by.

This story originally appeared in the  Health Dialog Care Compass Blog.

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