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The word "hospitalization" can strike fear into even the most hardened of souls. The mere utterance of the term conjures images of paper gowns, endless stacks of insurance paperwork and the sickly smell of disinfectant. But the unspoken fear on the backs of many patients' minds is often much worse - what if something goes wrong?

This worry may not be unfounded. Over the last 15 years, major changes have been made to the ways in which patients receive hospital care. Previously, general practitioners would recommend hospitalization, look after the patients while they were in the hospital and then oversee the patients' follow-up care. Now, hospital-based care is being largely outsourced to "hospitalists," a relatively new brand of specialists who make their living by exclusively caring for hospitalized patients.

While this change does increase efficiency and reduces doctor burnout, it has the unfortunate consequence of reducing the treating physicians' knowledge base.

Family practice doctors establish long-term relationships with their patients and often have intimate knowledge of a particular patient's medical history. Even if that history is well-documented, it is likely not on the front of the hospitalists' minds.

Similarly, family practice doctors are responsible for overseeing their patients' follow-up care, but they often don't have a full picture of what happened while the patient was hospitalized. Were changes made to the patient's medication? Does the patient need additional tests or examinations? What are the lingering medical concerns? Sometimes this information doesn't get passed along.

All too often, this lack of knowledge and communication leads patients right back to the hospital. A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reveals that although patients treated by hospitalists often have shorter and cheaper initial hospital stays, they are much more likely to need to be rehospitalized after discharge.

Good Communication is Invaluable

Patients can reduce the likelihood of encountering a problem with their treatment by helping to smooth communication between the hospital and their primary care physician. Experts recommend asking the following four questions:

  • Does your primary care physician oversee hospital care, or does he or she rely on hospitalists?
  • Is there a hospital your primary care physician prefers?
  • What protocols does your primary care physician have to facilitate good communication with the hospital?
  • Are there programs available to you to help smooth the transition between hospital and primary care?

Hospitalization can be a stressful event in anyone's life. However, patients can greatly increase the likelihood of success by being proactive and asking these questions ahead of time.

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