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Leaving the hospital

What to ask before you're discharged, and what to do after you leave.

The day you leave the hospital is likely to be a happy one. But even though your hospital stay is over, your medical condition may still require ongoing attention.

You may even find yourself back in the hospital again. The rates of readmission within 30 days can be high, especially for certain groups of people—such as those with Medicare or Medicaid. Some of these second stays may be preventable.

Physicians, hospitals and the federal government are working to reduce the number of these return trips. But you—the patient—also can play a fundamental role by ensuring that you don't leave the hospital before having a thorough talk with your doctor and staff about your discharge plans.

Where are you going?

Maybe the most important item to discuss is, where will you go when those hospital doors close behind you?

It's possible that a friend or family member will drive you straight home. Or you may need intermediate care before going home—such as a stay at a nursing facility or rehabilitation center.

Even if you go straight from hospital to home, you might need help from a caregiver. If family or friends aren't available, you should ask your care team about arranging for home healthcare.

Let your care team—which might include a discharge planner, social worker or nurse—know if you think you'll need help with activities like:

  • Bathing, using the bathroom or getting dressed.
  • Cooking, shopping, housecleaning or paying bills.
  • Getting to medical appointments or picking up medication.

You should also ask if you'll need any home medical equipment, such as a walker or an oxygen tank.

The hospital staff may arrange some or all of these things. If the responsibility is yours, ask for a written list of what you need, where you can get it and contact numbers.

Also, check with your insurance plan to find out what is and isn't covered. The hospital staff may be able to steer you to community resources that can help.

How's your health?

Make sure you leave the hospital with a good understanding of your health condition. For example, are you cured of the illness for which you were admitted? Or are you just well enough to go home? If you had surgery, do you know how to care for your wound?

Request a printed description of your diagnosis, the type of surgery or treatment you had, and other important details about your hospital stay. Then ask, "How am I now?"

Other things to find out about include:

Limitations. Should you avoid driving? Lifting items over a certain weight? When can you go back to work or school?

Tasks. You may have an open wound or drainage site that needs special care. Perhaps you were diagnosed with diabetes and need to learn how to inject medication. Ask the staff to demonstrate these tasks to you (and anyone who will care for you). Speak up if you think something is beyond your ability.

Red flags. Get a written list of problems to watch for and what to do if they occur. Highlight any signs or symptoms on the list that need immediate medical attention. Make sure you know whom to call if problems occur or if you have questions.

What are your medications?

The hospital has a list of everything you were taking when you were admitted—including vitamins, nonprescription drugs and supplements.

How does it compare with the medication regimen you are on now?

Ask your care team to highlight any changes. Be sure you understand the basics of any new medication:

  • What is it for?
  • How often do I take it?
  • How do I take it (such as with or without food)?
  • What are possible side effects?
  • How long will I need to take it? Is it temporary (like an antibiotic) or long-term (insulin)?

See if you or a family member or friend can fill your prescriptions before you leave so you don't have to make extra trips after discharge.

When is your next medical visit?

You'll likely need to see your primary care provider, surgeon or other medical professional fairly soon.

Optimally, your initial appointments have been scheduled for you. If not, ask if that can be done before you leave.

Write down the date and time of all follow-up visits. Be sure to include the address of any office you haven't visited before, as well as a phone number.

Even in this age of electronic medical records, it's a good idea to put all your discharge information into a folder and take it to every visit.

Ask anything

If you have any questions or are unsure of your medications or appointments, ask for clarification. Then explain your plan as you understand it to be sure you have it right.

All these steps can help you continue on your path to health after you leave the hospital.

Reviewed 1/30/2024

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