Who’s Who in the Hospital

Beyond the doctors and nurses who care for patients, there are dozens of other professionals who work in the hospital. While doctors and nurses care for patients’ immediate medical needs, these other medical staff do many other tasks that go along with caring for patients in the hospital and helping them get home.This post describes the role of some of those other medical personnel. It’s hardly a complete list, but it describes most of the people who might come by a patient’s room on any given day.

Nurses aides: The nurses who take care of patients in the hospital are assisted by nurses aides. Nurses aides have some medical training, and take vital signs, move patients in and out of bed or help patients walk in the halls, help with toileting, and do many other patient care tasks. They don’t generally give medications or do wound care, which is the role of the nursing staff.

Social workers: Social workers are trained professionals who support patients and families with the many nonmedical problems that come up when someone is hospitalized. They generally don’t have medical training and can help with everything from answering questions about insurance, to finding nursing or rehab facility placement, to arranging travel and accommodation for family members. They’re also skilled at supporting patients and families with dealing with the stress of hospitalization. They’ll usually come by and introduce themselves, but the nurses and doctors on your medical team can also contact them on your behalf.

Discharge facilitators: Discharge facilitators coordinate the surprisingly complicated process of discharging patients from the hospital. There are many elements to a patient’s discharge, from filling prescriptions, to getting trained on using new medications and caring for dressings and drains, to arranging transport. To help manage all these things, discharge facilitators meet with patients and families starting soon after the patient is admitted, and help the medical team make sure that when the patient is ready to go home, there are no last-minute holdups. They are great resources for questions about the discharge process.

Child life specialists: Child life specialists have special training in making children’s time in the hospital a more pleasant and healing experience. They help prepare children for surgery, help distract young patients during tests and procedures, and provide toys and games for kids. Also, child life specialists can help children of hospitalized patients to understand their parent’s condition and develop coping strategies.

Rehab psychologists: For patients who are having trouble coping with surgery or recovery from surgery, rehab psychologists can play a vital role. These mental health professionals are particularly useful for patients who have had an unexpected injury or illness, such as trauma patients, or who have had serious complications. But they can be useful to any patient or family that is having trouble figuring out how to manage the psychological effects of being ill and being in the hospital.

Speech therapists: Speech therapists have a wide range of duties, most of which have to do with helping patients with speech disorders. However, they also evaluate patients without problems speaking to make sure they are able to swallow properly, which determines whether a patient can eat safely.  Difficulty chewing and swallowing after surgery is common after major surgery, particularly in elderly people and in patients who have been hospitalized or who have not eaten for a long time. The medical team usually contacts speech therapists if there are concerns about a patient’s ability to swallow or if a patient is at risk for getting food or liquids into the lungs.

Phlebotomists: Patients who have had surgery get blood tests frequently during their post-operative care. Unless these labs are needed urgently — in which case nurses or doctors obtain the blood themselves – blood is usually drawn by a specialist team of phlebotomists. These professionals are usually better than doctors and nurses at blood draws – they do them more often.

Physical and occupational therapists: Physician and occupational therapists (PT/OT), are responsible for helping patients with mobility – getting up, moving around, and doing the tasks necessary to be able to take care of themselves after they are discharged from the hospital. They also assess patients for suitability for rehabilitation or skilled nursing facility admission.

Technicians: In any hospital, there are dozens of different types of technicians — specialists trained to perform a wide variety of tests and procedures. These include the radiology technicians who take x-rays, ultrasounds, and CT scans, and dialysis technicians who perform kidney dialysis, and many others.

Dieticians and nutrition support: Dieticians help make sure that patients are getting the right nutrition, before and after an operation. They help the medical team measure what patients are eating and determine what sort of nutritional support a patient might need. For instance, patients who need a feeding tube or IV nutrition will have a dietician who helps to calculate the proper type of feeding and the proper dosage. Dieticians can also help to make sure that patients with dietary restrictions still get proper nutrition. The dieticians are not the same as the nutrition support personnel, who are the people who bring food trays to patient rooms.

Transport: Hospitals are enormous places, and the various services and tests that patients need can be spread out all over the hospital. To get patients where they need to be, hospitals use dedicated transport staff. These people are responsible for picking up patients in their rooms and taking them to tests or appointments throughout the hospital, then bringing them back again. Patients are usually transported either by wheelchair or on a gurney – a sort of rolling hospital bed. Sick patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) generally travel with nurses, but for patients on the regular ward, transporters are the way to go.

Housekeeping: Housekeepers are responsible for keeping patient rooms clean and tidy. In a hospital, that means more than simple dusting – there are numerous regulations about how and how often hospital areas need to be cleaned, including deep cleanings of patient rooms before a new patient arrives, and cleaning of all the surfaces on a regular schedule.

Volunteers: Volunteers help on inpatient wards by taking care of various nonmedical tasks. Often those duties include helping with clerical and inventory work on the floor, but volunteers can also bring you a warm blanket, refill a water glass, or come by to have a nice chat.

As you can see, there are a wide variety of people involved in the care of hospitalized patients. But it’s not your job to keep them all straight – you should always feel free ask anyone caring for you what their role is and what they’re doing.

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

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