How to Be a Good Patient Wingman
Photo by Paramount Pictures
'You can be my wingman anytime.'
Coming from Iceman (Val Kilmer) to Maverick (Tom Cruise) in “Top Gun,” that was a huge compliment. And if someone chooses you as his or her hospital “wingman,” consider it an honor. Although you’re not actually flying jets together in tight formation, as the wingman – or patient advocate – you have the patient’s back. According to the National Patient Safety Foundation, your mission includes helping the patient “navigate the confusing health care system.” You’re speaking up as needed, looking out for the patient’s best interests and acting on his or her behalf. If you’ve just been enlisted, these guidelines can help.
Acting as the main wingman – or wingwoman – for a family member or friend involves commitment. You need to have time to spend at the hospital – or be able to take time off work – and have access to reliable transportation, the Empowered Patient Coalition advises in its guide for patients and advocates. You could be learning about treatment options during medical rounds or keeping track of events in a patient journal. Bottom line: You can’t really look out for your loved one from a distance.
Keep a sharp eye on safety.
The core reason for being a hospital wingman is to help keep someone you care about safe. Don’t assume every health care provider has the right information, says Ilene Corina, president and founder of PULSE of New York, a nonprofit patient safety group. Before surgery, “make sure everyone who comes in and talks to the patient introduces themselves and explains why they’re there, and what they’re going to do,” she says. “You want to make sure that if it’s a gallbladder, they’re not telling you that you need your appendix out.”
Communicate with respect.
The ideal wingman is assertive and a good communicator. You’ll be talking to doctors and nurses, asking questions and speaking up when something’s wrong with the patient’s condition or care. Be tactful, if possible. “We call it ‘assertive but respectful,’” Corina says. For instance, she says, you should double-check the pre-surgical ID bracelet, but you don’t have to stand over the hospital worker who’s placing it – wait until you and the patient have a few minutes alone.
Respectful communication should be a two-way street, says Andrea Goldstein, of Seaford, New York. Unfortunately, she says, that was lacking – along with adequate care – in a recent ER experience involving her son, who went in for excruciating pain. Standing neglected in the corridor, Goldstein (an RN herself) spoke out – loudly. She drew the attention of another patient’s visitor (similarly frustrated), eventually followed by the charge nurse, ER doctor and the hospital’s patient representative. “I’m not necessarily advocating causing a scene, although it is fairly effective,” she says. But, she adds, “You’re just trying to get care for your loved one … not Mercedes care, just decent care.”
Hold out for hygiene.
One problem in the ER encounter, Goldstein says, was nobody washed their hands when entering her son’s room, as evidenced by the used, discarded IV bag and tubing (not his) left undisturbed in the dry sink. Corina says advocates can play a big role in infection prevention by “making sure people wash their hands when they come in and before they touch the patient.” They can check whether the patient’s hands and nails are clean as well, in case they inadvertently scratch a surgical site or wound while sleeping.