34 Ways to Survive Your Next Trip to the Hospital

Updated: Apr. 20, 2018

From medication mix-ups to surgical errors, dangerous falls to deadly infections, hospital hazards can be harmful to your health. Here’s how to stay safe and get well.

Patient in ward

Errors in the hospital

As many as 440,000 Americans die every year from medical errors and infections contracted in the hospital. Combined, they are the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

Your best defense? Take charge of your care as much as possible. Ask lots of questions, take tons of notes, and have a family member or friend there to advocate on your behalf.

“You are part of the care team,” says Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, former senior vice president for patient safety and quality at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore. “This is your body, and you have wisdom.”

While some risks are beyond your control, these lifesaving tips will help protect against some of the biggest perils you face in the hospital. Make sure you never do these things when visiting someone in the hospital.

surgery, medicine and people concept - group of surgeons at operation in operating room at hospital
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Don’t just pick the closest facility

In an emergency, of course, you want to get to the nearest hospital—fast. But if you’re scheduling a surgery or procedure, selecting the right hospital, medical center, or surgery center could save your life, even if it means paying more to go out of network. A 2016 study in the journal PLOS One found that patients at the worst American hospitals were three times more likely to die during their stay (and 13 times more likely to have complications) than patients with the same health problem at the best hospitals. Three key questions to ask:

  1. How many times last year did the hospital perform the surgery you’re getting? Multiple studies show that the more often a hospital does a procedure, the better the outcome will be. You are significantly more likely to have complications—sometimes fatal ones—in a facility that performs the surgery only once or twice a year, Dr. Pronovost says.
  2. Does the ICU have critical-care specialists? Called intensivists, these specialists are experts on caring for the sickest patients. Studies show they decrease medication errors by 22 to 70 percent and complications by 50 percent. More important, your risk of death drops 30 percent if an intensivist manages your care.
  3. What is the hospital’s rate of catheter infections in the ICU? Low numbers indicate that the hospital has good safety and quality management, says Dr. Pronovost. Choose a hospital that has fewer than two bloodstream infections for every 1,000 days someone in the hospital has a catheter.
Emergency in the operating room

Always ask, “Is there anything else it might be?”

This crucial question encourages your hospital health-care providers to think about other possibilities, helping to reduce the risk of a diagnostic mistake, says Hardeep Singh, MD, MPH, a patient-safety researcher at the Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. As many as 160,000 patients in the medical system die or suffer a significant permanent injury every year because a condition is misdiagnosed or missed, according to a report in BMJ Quality and Safety. Such mistakes are especially common in the fast-paced environment of the ER. A patient may come in with a headache, receive a migraine ­diagnosis—and suffer a stroke hours later. Watch out for these secrets hospitals don’t want to tell you (but every patient should know.)

A patient at the doctor at the reception.
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Consider a second opinion

If you’ve been diagnosed with a serious, complex, or rare condition—or if you have any doubts about your diagnosis—seek out another doctor’s insights before starting treatment. Research shows there’s a 20 to 30 percent chance the second doctor’s opinion will be different from the first’s. Even if the diagnosis is the same, you may learn new information about your treatment options.

Multiracial team of doctors discussing a patient standing grouped in the foyer looking at a tablet computer, close up view
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Call a bedside huddle

If your case is complex, ask whether your doctor can get all your care providers together to brainstorm possible diagnoses and come up with a plan for care, suggests Dr. Pronovost. One study found that bringing providers from different specialties together to talk about specific patients cut the number of adverse events almost in half. Happily, this has become an increasingly common practice in many hospitals.

Woman Undergoing CT Scan While Doctor's Using Computers
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Take charge of your test results

If you have a CT scan or a biopsy in the hospital, find out when the results will be in and how you will be informed—and make a note to follow up. Also, ask the imaging center or lab to send the results to any doctors working on your case. Dr. Singh’s research shows that about 7 percent of abnormal lab tests and 8 percent of abnormal scans get lost in follow-up. “Don’t assume no news is good news,” he says. This is why you should never have surgery in the evening.

drug pill and capsule of antibiotics in blister packaging
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Be smart about antibiotics

Antibiotics fight infections, but they can cause them too. Because the drugs kill the protective bacteria in your gut, they increase your risk of picking up Clostridium difficile (C. diff), one of the deadliest hospital-acquired infections, says Arjun Srinivasan, MD, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC. That’s why the CDC no longer recommends anti­biotics after an operation if you have no signs of infection. A 2017 study found that when doctors in British hospitals cut back on prescribing Cipro, Levaquin, and other broad-spectrum antibiotics, the rate of infections from C. diff bacteria dropped a whopping 80 percent. “If your doctor prescribes you an anti­biotic in the hospital, ask what infection you have and how long you need to take the antibiotic,” Dr. Srinivasan says.

Clean Up
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Clean your hospital room

Even though hospitals disinfect rooms between patients, studies show that up to 60 percent of hospital rooms are not cleaned properly. For extra protection, ask a nurse for some bleach wipes or bring your own (bleach is necessary to kill C. diff). Wipe down the room or have a family member do it. Make sure you swipe in one direction only, and don’t turn the wipe over and use the other side or you’ll risk contaminating your hand.

Nurse Injecting Senior Male Patient In Hospital Bed
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Limit IVs, tubes, and catheters as much as possible

The longer you have one of these devices, the higher your risk of picking up a deadly infection, says Dr. Srinivasan. If you need a catheter, ask whether intermittent catheterization is an option; it can lower the risk of infection by 20 percent or more.

Toilet Flushing Water close up

Tell your doctor about diarrhea

Loose stools are the first symptom of C. diff, which attacks the intestines. “Sometimes patients don’t tell anyone, because it’s embarrassing,” Dr. Srinivasan says. “But it’s really important to tell us, especially if you’re getting or recently had an antibiotic.” These are the secrets to finding the best doctor, according to doctors.

Dental health care clinic. Close-up of young man's hands is holding a toothbrush and placing toothpaste on it.

Brush your teeth

Bacteria in your mouth can find their way into your lungs, causing a nasty case of hospital-acquired pneumonia. Studies have found that good oral care while in the hospital cuts your risk by more than a third. If you’re the family member of a patient who can’t take care of himself or herself, ask the nurse to show you how to use a toothbrush or foam swab sticks to clean the inside of your loved one’s mouth, and do it at least twice a day.

Hand holding syringe and vaccine.
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Get your flu and pneumonia shots

Ideally, you should get these vaccinations before you land in the hospital, but you can also ask for them once you’ve been admitted. Most insurance plans will still pick up the cost. The CDC recommends getting two different pneumococcal shots at least one year apart if you are 65 or older, smoke, or have a chronic condition that weakens your immune system.

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Insist on handwashing

Good hand hygiene is your best weapon against hospital-acquired infections such as C. diff, methicillin-­resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and carbapenem-­resistant Entero­bacteriaceae, a family of germs that includes Escherichia coli (E. coli). Ask all care providers and visitors to wash their hands with soap and water every time they enter the room. Don’t forget to wash your own hands before you eat and after you go to the bathroom. These are the medical facts everyone should know.

Closeup DNA test tube and cotton swab, wipe test in man hands. Men's hands in blue gloves.

Ask to be screened for MRSA

Many people carry these super-­resistant staph germs on their skin, and they’re harmless as long as you’re healthy. “But if your immunity is compromised or they sneak in through an IV line or an incision, they can have a field day,” causing pneumonia, sepsis (a life-threatening condition caused by an overwhelming immune response to infection), or an invasive bloodstream infection, says health-care safety consultant Karen Curtiss, author of Safe and Sound in the Hospital. Your doctor can test you for MRSA with a simple nose swab. If the test is positive, he or she can give you an anti­biotic that targets the strain.

Women's Shaving Razor
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Don’t shave in the area of your surgery (and don’t let the nurse do it either)

Shaving leaves microscopic cuts and nicks that can become bacterial breeding grounds. The CDC now recommends that hair near your surgery site not be removed unless it will interfere with the operation. “If surgeons need to do it, they should use clippers and not a razor,” Dr. Srinivasan adds.

Beautiful girl washing her body shower gel
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Shower with a disinfectant before you go to the hospital

Pick up some Hibiclens, a powerful antiseptic soap that will kill germs on your skin, at your local pharmacy, and shower with it at home the night before and the morning of your surgery. Use it instead of your regular soap or shower gel. “What you’re hoping to do is leave a little residue on your skin,” says Dale Bratzler, DO, MPH, medical director at the Oklahoma Foundation for Medical Quality in Oklahoma City.

Senior doctor consults young patient

Tell your doctor if you have an infection

Even a minor one, such as a sinus infection, can weaken your immune system and increase your risk of complications, Dr. Srinivasan says. The bacteria from something as simple as a tooth abscess can get into your bloodstream and cause a potentially life-threatening situation. You and your doctor can weigh the risks and discuss whether to delay your operation. Follow these secrets to make the most of your next doctor appointment.

equipment and medical devices in modern operating room take with selective color technique and art lighting

Be the first surgical patient of the day

The room is cleaner, your surgery is less likely to be delayed, and your surgeon won’t be as tired, says Jeanne Dockins, RN, a surgical care nurse in Tucson, Arizona. If you’re wheeled in around 4 p.m., you’re four times more likely to have anesthesia-related problems such as nausea and pain as patients who have surgery before noon, according to a Duke University analysis published in Quality and Safety in Health Care. The authors speculated that the discrepancy might be related to the doctors’ or nurses’ fatigue, swings in their circadian rhythms, and/or the fact that late-in-the-day surgical patients go all day without eating.

hand with probe in medical laboratory

Get screened for blood-clot risk

Your risk of developing deep vein thrombosis­—a condition in which a dangerous blood clot forms in a deep vein in the leg or another part of the body—is ten times higher when you’re in the hospital because surgery can release tissue debris or other substances that don’t belong in your veins. Being confined to bed also raises your risk. Before your surgery, your doctor should take your medical history and give you a physical to determine your level of risk. If the screening shows you’re at high risk, your doctor can start you on blood-thinning medication, recommend compression stockings, or use a mechanical device to prevent blood from pooling in your legs, Dr. Pronovost says. Getting up and walking as soon as you can also reduces your risk.

Soft Neutral Fabric Blanket Pile Background
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Ask for extra blankets

Surgeons often like to keep the operating room cold so they won’t get overheated in their gowns, masks, and hats while working under the warm surgical lights. But research shows the chill and the effects of anesthesia may give you mild hypothermia, which can cause cardiac arrest and increase your risk of infection. For that reason, many anesthesiologists now use warming devices on patients during surgical procedures. And you should pile on the sweaters and blankets to stay warm before and after surgery.

Portrait of happy female caregiver and senior woman walking together at home. Professional caregiver taking care of elderly woman.
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If you’re at all unsteady, get help to go to the bathroom

Every year, 700,000 to one million patients fall in the hospital, and 30 to 50 percent end up with a serious injury such as a broken bone or a concussion. Wear skidproof slippers, and call the nurse before you try to get out of bed on your own, says critical-care nurse Kati Kleber, RN, author of Admit One. “People don’t want to bother us when they have to go to the bathroom, so they wait until it’s an emergency. Then they’re in a hurry, which puts them at risk,” she says.

Stack of colorful towels on white

Use a clean washcloth on incisions

“I’ve seen patients wash everything else, then use that same washcloth on their incision,” Kleber says. “Um, yuck!” Follow your doctor’s instructions on changing the dressing and caring for your wound, and always wash your hands before touching it. Find out what your doctor is really thinking, but won’t say to your face.

TENS electrodes positioned for knee pain treatment in physical therapy

Request a physical therapist right away

Your condition and muscle tone start to deteriorate after just a few days of bed rest, says Bobbi Kolonay, RN, an aging life care manager in Pittsburgh. “Even in intensive care, you can do bedside exercises,” she says. This service is typically covered by insurance as long as your doctor deems it medically necessary.

Asian woman sleeping In hospital bed, Morning sun shines into the room, AF point selection and blur.

Ask your nurses to “cluster” your overnight care

Even though sleep is important for healing, most hospitals disturb patients multiple times during the night. “If you ask, we can often cluster things together so you’re not woken up so much,” says Brittney Wilson, RN, a nurse in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s best to communicate this request as soon as you meet your night shift nurse, Wilson says, so he or she can plan ahead.

Woman's hand using a pencil noting on notepad

Bring an up-to-date medication list

Include all your prescriptions and dosages, along with any over-the-counter medicines and supplements you take. Many agencies, including the FDA and AARP, offer a medication list template you can download from the Web. If you’re tech-savvy, you can create an electronic record on your smartphone through a free app such as CareZone or Medisafe; just make sure family members know how to access it.

Close-up Of Doctor's Hand With Iv Drip Inserted In Patient's Hand

Don’t distract your nurse when he or she is programming your IV

“I’m dealing with a lot of numbers—your weight, how much is left in the bag, and the rate the doctors want it to go in—and messing it up can be catastrophic,” Kleber says. “I often have to say to patients, ‘Hold that thought. Let me focus here for a minute.’”

Female doctor talking to male patient in hospital bed. Smiling doctor with clipboard attending sick man in hospital ward.
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Post a list of your medical allergies

The hospital may already list them on a whiteboard, but nurses could forget to check it, says Dockins. “Sometimes your nurse’s mind might be wandering,” she says. “If you tape a sign over your bed that reads, ‘Allergic to XYZ,’ he or she won’t miss it.” These are common lies people tell their doctors, and why they need to stop.

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Keep track of everything

It’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed in the hospital. “Often I have patients who have no idea who was in their room,” says Kevin D’Mello, MD, director of quality improvement and patient safety in internal medicine at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Write down your questions, the name of anyone who comes into your room, and a record of your conversation with him or her. Or have a loved one fill that note-taking role.

Male nurse pushing stretcher gurney bed in hospital corridor with doctor & senior female patient
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Repeat back what you heard

Studies show that patients immediately forget 40 to 80 percent of the medical information they receive, and nearly half of what they do remember is incorrect. So when the medical staff shares an explanation or instructions, repeat what they said back in your own words to make sure you understood correctly.

Doctor and nurse talking to a patient in hospital ward

Ask for a bedside shift change

Many errors occur when care transitions from one nurse to the next. If nurses do the handoff in your presence, you can catch slipups and ask questions. 

medicine, healthcare and people concept - smiling doctor with clipboard and young man patient meeting at hospital
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Read behind your doctor

Studies show that mistakes in patient files often contribute to errors­—your chart lists an incorrect body weight, for example, leading your doctor to prescribe a too-high dose of your medication. Under the law, you have a right to see your medical record. A growing number of medical systems make it easy to access through an online patient portal you can log in to right from your smartphone in your hospital room. Check your record for accuracy and point out any errors.

Senior female patient being assisted by female asian nurse in using walker.

Get out of bed

You’re inevitably going to spend a lot of time lying down, but try to get up as soon as you can. Being active helps prevent bed sores, blood clots, and pneumonia, and research shows you’ll get out of the hospital sooner, says Dr. Bratzler. Ask a nurse or a family member to help you take a short stroll a few times a day.

medicine, support, family health care and people concept - happy senior man and young woman visiting and cheering her grandmother lying in bed at hospital ward
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Have someone by your side

Nurses can’t always get to a room right away when the call bell or the monitoring alarm goes off. A friend or family member can help make sure medical staff respond quickly if there’s an urgent need. “I had a friend who went in for a routine hernia operation,” Curtiss says. “The nurses told his wife that he was going to sleep for a few hours, so she went out to run errands. When she came back, he was brain-dead. He had a bad reaction to anesthesia, vomited, and choked to death before the nurses got there.” This might be a rare occurrence, but you don’t want to be the one it happens to.

Medical specialist discussing with female patient in his clinic. Doctor with patient during consultation in medical office.
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Trust your gut

If something doesn’t seem right, speak up. Tell the doctor if the drug he or she is prescribing didn’t work the last time you tried it or if you notice changes in a loved one’s condition. “Sometimes the family will say, ‘I know he doesn’t look different, but he seems confused,’” says Dr. Pronovost, “and sure enough, he’s developing an infection.” When Dr. Pronovost’s team examined adverse events at hospitals, they found that in an astonishing 90 percent of cases, someone knew things were going wrong but the person didn’t speak up or wasn’t heard.

Doctor pushing and assisting patient in the hospital

Ask to record discharge instructions

Study after study has documented that many patients don’t remember or understand what to do after they leave the hospital, meaning they’re vulnerable to complications. One Alabama hospital recorded the instructions so patients could play them back later; this reduced the number of patients who had to be readmitted within 30 days. Steal that strategy by asking the nurse at discharge whether you can tape him or her with your smartphone. Also, make sure you have these four things before you leave the hospital:

  1. A follow-up appointment. Your doctor or nurse may tell you to see your primary care doctor in seven days, but when you call, he or she can’t see you for a month. Before you leave the hospital, ask someone there to call and make the appointment for you.
  2. An updated list of medications, with instructions on when and how to take them. Make sure you know which prescriptions you’re supposed to continue and which ones you already took the day you are discharged. If you need new medications, ask the hospital to call them in to your pharmacy.
  3. The number to call if you have a question. Ask how to get in touch with your specific doctor if you have questions after discharge. If you leave the hospital on a Thursday or Friday, get the number for the doctor who will be on call over the weekend.
  4. A list of red flags to watch for. Don’t rely on the general handout the hospital gives you. Find out which specific symptoms may indicate your condition is getting worse and what you should do if they occur.

Next, read about these secrets nurses wish they could tell you.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest