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Being Admitted to the Hospital

by Robert M. Palmer, MD, MPH

People are admitted to a hospital when they have a serious or life-threatening problem (such as a heart attack). They also may be admitted for less serious disorders that cannot be adequately treated in another place (such as at home or in an outpatient surgery center). A doctor—the primary care doctor, a specialist, or an emergency department doctor—determines whether people have a medical problem serious enough to warrant admission to the hospital. The main goal of hospitalization is to restore or improve health so that people can return home. Thus, hospital stays are intended to be relatively short and to enable people to be safely discharged to home or to another health care setting where treatment can be completed.

For many people, hospital admission begins with a visit to the emergency department. When and how to go to an emergency department are important (see Visits to the emergency department). When people do go to the emergency department, they should bring their medical information. Of particular importance is a list of all drugs being taken, including over-the-counter drugs, prescription drugs, and dietary supplements (such as vitamins, minerals, and medicinal herbs). A copy of their most recent medical summary and records of recent hospital stays are also helpful, although many people do not have these records. In such cases, the emergency department staff typically obtains the information from the primary care doctor, the hospital records department, or both.

The first step in admission is registration. Sometimes registration can be done before arriving at the hospital. Registration involves filling out forms that provide the following:

  • Basic information (such as name and address)

  • Health insurance information

  • Telephone numbers of family members or friends to contact in case of an emergency

  • Consent to be treated

  • Consent to release information to insurance companies

  • Agreement to pay the charges

People are given an identification bracelet to be worn on the wrist. They should check to make sure the information on it is correct and should wear it at all times. That way, when tests or procedures are done, staff members can make sure that they have the right person.

After admission, people may be taken for blood tests or x-rays or go immediately to a hospital room. Hospital rooms may be private (one bed) or shared (more than one bed). Even in a private room, privacy is limited. Staff members frequently go in and out of the room, and although they usually knock, they may enter before people can respond.

Various tests, such as blood or urine tests, may be done to check for other problems. Staff members may ask questions to determine whether people are likely to develop problems in the hospital or to need extra help after discharge from the hospital. People may be asked about eating habits, mood, vaccinations, and drugs taken. They may be asked a standard series of questions to evaluate mental function (see Mental Status Testing).

During the hospital stay, people are examined by a doctor at least once a day. Nurses and other staff members usually come in several times a day and provide most of the care. Physical therapists may come in regularly to help with exercise. If people need extra help, such as help with eating or getting to the toilet, family members may provide this care. Family members can also talk with a social worker at the hospital about making arrangements for extra help. Children may require a parent or other caregiver to stay at the hospital most of the time.

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