Headed to the Hospital? 4 Key Questions to Ask Your Doctor

Why it pays to know your doctor's policy on hospital care.

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Doctors do the best they can to keep patients healthy and out of the hospital. Sometimes, though, hospitalization is necessary despite the best possible care. At the first private practice I joined after residency training, my colleagues and I admitted patients to a local hospital and took turns caring for those who needed inpatient treatment. This system ensured we'd have easy access to their previous medical records and often know them on a personal level. Arranging office appointments after discharge was almost never a problem, and we were guaranteed knowledge of what had happened to our patients in the hospital.

That's all changed. The way patients receive hospital care has transformed radically in the past 15 years. Many primary care physicians, pressured to take on more patients and exhausted from being on call too many nights, have stopped seeing their patients through a hospital stay. Instead, they now rely on "hospitalists," a relatively new breed of specialists whose exclusive responsibility is to care for hospitalized patients.

[Preparing for Your Hospital Stay]

There are potential advantages to being treated by a hospitalist rather than a family doctor. Because hospitalists spend all their time on the wards rather than trying to juggle obligations to hospital and office patients, they're usually easier to reach with questions or concerns. Also, hospitalists may be more up-to-date on the latest medical research on inpatient treatments. These advantages should theoretically translate into better care and shorter stays for hospital patients. And they do, according to a 2007 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine; researchers found that patients cared for by hospitalists indeed had shorter hospital stays and lower medical costs than those cared for by primary care physicians.

But as hospitalists are replacing family doctors on hospital wards, concern is mounting that poor communication between hospital and office physicians could lead to worse health outcomes after discharge. I personally know the frustration of seeing a patient in the office after a recent hospitalization having not received critical information about what medication changes were made, what procedures he underwent, or what tests are needed to monitor his condition. Patients whose doctors don't have access to complete information during follow-up visits may be more likely to end up in the emergency room or be hospitalized yet again. (Same goes for patients who don't schedule follow-up visits at all.)

[Search for a Top Doctor near you.]

A study published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine seems to confirm these fears. In a nationally representative sample of Medicare patients admitted to hospitals between 2001 and 2006, those who were cared for by hospitalists had slightly shorter average hospital stays and slightly lower hospital bills than those cared for by primary care physicians. However, in the 30 days after discharge, hospitalist patients were more likely to be readmitted or land in the emergency room. One possible explanation: poor communication, since hospitalist patients were significantly less likely to follow up with their primary care physicians after discharge.

To improve the quality of "care transitions" between hospitalists and family doctors, some health systems have devised programs to ensure patients get the recommended follow-up care. Two studies published in last week's Archives of Internal Medicine evaluated two such programs. In one study, seniors who'd been hospitalized for heart failure at Baylor Medical Center in Garland, Texas received several home visits by specially trained nurses between three days and three months after discharge. Those enrolled in the nurse-visit program were only half as likely as past heart failure patients to be readmitted within 30 days. In another study, patients at six Rhode Island hospitals were assigned health coaches (nurses or social workers) who visited them once in the hospital, once at home, and telephoned them twice to encourage follow-up with primary care physicians and ask about any worrisome signs or symptoms. Patients in that program were nearly 40 percent less likely to be readmitted within 30 days than patients who received no health coaching.

[A Painless Guide to Navigating Your Hospital Stay]

Because it's impossible to predict whether you or a loved one will need to be hospitalized, it's important to understand your doctor's policies for patients who require hospital care. You can start by asking these 4 questions:

  1. Do the practice's physicians care personally for patients in the hospital, or do they rely on hospitalists?
  2. If you live in a metropolitan area with multiple hospitals to choose from, which hospital does your doctor prefer?
  3. If you are seen by a hospitalist, what protocols are in place to ensure timely communication between the hospital and your doctor's office about follow-up plans?
  4. Are you eligible for any programs that assist patients with care transitions?
  5. Given all of the changes that have taken place in medicine, it's unlikely that we will return to the "old days" when the same doctors were responsible for caring for their patients both in and out of the hospital. Consequently, patients need to be proactive to be sure that they receive the best post-hospital care. Being hospitalized is always stressful, but knowing that your follow-up care won't fall through the cracks may give you peace of mind.