I think hospitals are cool. When I was a kid and went to visit someone, I was impressed by the big, maze-like structures, mysterious things going on inside. The halls were full of strange smells, odd noises, futuristic equipment. When I got older and entered the profession myself, they became my work home, magnificent buildings dedicated to researching and combating illness and death.
Many have the opposite feeling- they hate hospitals. When I meet friends occasionally at work, I’ll see them twitch and glance about. ”What’s wrong?” I’ll ask. “Hospitals give me the willies,” they’ll say, looking as if they expect the mummy or Frankenstein monster to pop out of, say, the Radiology suite.
I see their point. Hospitals are places where people go when they’re suffering. You hear moans of pain from rooms, overhead calls for “Code Trauma” and “Code Blue,” and staff talking gravely in hushed tones. Hospitals are also easy places to get lost in. They grow organically. Is there a new specialty and technology? Throw up a new wing over here. Need more beds? Stick an annex there. They’re maze-like not to purposely confuse outsiders; that’s just how they evolve.
Hospitals are certainly safer than in the past. They’re no longer places where people regularly catch infections, or get the wrong limb sawn off. Initiatives in the last decades have made medicine as safety-conscious as aviation. Checklists, safety-training, and protocols have erased much of the haphazardness of medicine. Patient safety is now as much of staff education as drawing blood or using the computer.
You can help make your kid’s hospital stay safer too. First, choose a hospital that’s appropriate for kids. Some hospitals take care of lots of kids, some don’t. Second, choose an academic hospital- one that’s affiliated with a medical school and trains medical students and residents. Statistically, patients at teaching hospitals do better- have more accurate diagnoses, go home sooner, and generally get better care. There is something about that environment, where multiple doctors at various levels of training put their heads together, discuss cases, teach each other, that helps them figure out what’s wrong.
In the Emergency Department at Lafayette General, I occasionally interact with one bunch of those doctor teams, the surgeons. Surgery teams are an odd bunch. Busy, harassed by nurses and non-surgeons like me, they bustle around in packs of five or six. They come in all sizes, levels of training, and stages of grooming; tall, short, medical students, residents, some with hair and scrubs rumpled like they’re just out of bed, some coiffed and wearing clean, starched lab coats. Their boss is the Attending, the surgery professor who breezes into patient rooms with authority and bon vivant, reassuring all that they’ve got it managed, their minions scribbling down orders in their wake. Not the pretty picture seen on Grey’s Anatomy.
LIke we discussed above, being a patient in “academic” institutions like Lafayette General or University Hospital and Clinics has advantages. Patients get better quicker when they have more than one doctor puzzling over their cases, discussing it with each other, researching together. However, keeping all those doctors straight can be tough for patients, and parents. Which doctor is which specialist, responsible for which issue?
It’s always a good idea for a patient to have an “advocate.” Best if this person has some medical knowledge, and can keep everything straight. Usually pediatric patients come with an advocate already- their parents. However, parents are also emotionally involved with their child’s case, worried sick. Already overwhelmed, often the parent needs a cool-headed advocate themselves.
There’s a lot for a patient, parent, and advocate to keep straight, besides which doctor is responsible for what. There are multiple medications and tests. Where are we with the diagnosis, what’s the treatment plan? And did you wash your hands before touching my child?
These are important things to monitor. Even with computer-controlled drug dispensing, you still want to ensure that your child is getting the right medication and the right dose. The radiology tech comes to pick up your child for xrays- ask why this test, what will we learn from it?
So after you and your pediatrician pick your hospital, and your child must stay, have an advocate to help you navigate the complexities of medical care. And to keep all those characters in scrubs straight.