Helpful Hints About Your Hospital Stay: From the Admissions Process to Being Discharged

Tips for a hospital stayHas your doctor said you need a medical test that has to be done in the hospital? Do you need surgery? Most people worry when they have to stay overnight in the hospital. Learning more about what to expect and about people who work in hospitals can help.

What to Bring

It's best to bring as little as you can to the hospital. You will need:

  • bathrobe and slippers (put your name on each item); most hospitals provide special hospital bed clothes
  • comfortable clothes to wear home (they may be the same clothes you wore to the hospital)
  • toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, comb and brush, deodorant, and razor
  • your hearing aids or glasses
  • a little cash (not more than $10) to buy newspapers or magazines

Make sure you bring your health insurance card and updated information about:

  • past illnesses and surgeries
  • your medicines, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs
  • your allergies
  • names and telephone numbers (home and business) to contact in an emergency

What to Leave Home

Leave jewelry (including wedding rings, earrings, and watches), extra cash, credit cards, and checkbooks at home, or have a family member or friend keep them for you. Don’t bring electric shavers, hair dryers, curling irons, or other equipment.


Once your hospital stay is planned, many hospitals have a staff member call to ask pre-admissions questions over the phone. Then, when you go to the hospital, many of the forms are already filled in. Your first stop at the hospital is the admitting office. You will sign forms that:

  • give the hospital details about yourself, your doctor, and your insurance
  • explain your surgery, test, or procedure
  • give your okay for the medical staff to treat you
  • You also will be asked about advance directives (see section below on Patient Rights).
  • If you don't have health insurance, talk with the admissions staff about other payment methods and sources of financial aid.
  • A hospital bracelet will be put on your wrist by the admissions staff and checked by nurses. Look at your bracelet to make sure your information is correct.

Hospital Staff

While you are in the hospital, there may be many people who take care of you.

  • Doctors are in charge of your overall care. The doctor in charge may be your primary doctor (the doctor you see outside the hospital), a specialist on the hospital staff, or a hospitalist who is trained to take care of you while you are in the hospital.
  • Nurses of many kinds can take care of you. For example, registered nurses can give medicines, licensed practical nurses can help feed you, and nurse’s aides can help with personal care.
  • Respiratory therapists prevent and treat breathing problems. They teach exercises that help avoid lung infections after surgery.
  • Technicians can take blood or perform tests such as x-rays.
  • Physical therapists show you how to build muscle, increase flexibility, and improve coordination.
  • Occupational therapists work with you to restore, maintain, or improve the ability to perform every day tasks like cooking, eating, bathing, or dressing.
  • Dietitians can plan menus including special meals and teach you how to have well-balanced meals at home.
  • Clinical pharmacists may be consulted about the medicines you take.
  • Social workers assist you and your family. They can help find home-care, rehabilitation, social services, long-term care, and support groups.

Inside the Hospital

Hospitals have many patient-care areas. The intensive care unit (also called the ICU) has special equipment and staff to care for very ill patients. Coronary care units (CCUs) give intensive medical care to patients with heart disease. In both the ICU and CCU, visiting hours are very limited. Often only family members are allowed to see patients. Surgery is done in the operating room (OR). After an operation, patients are cared for in the recovery room until they are ready to move to their hospital rooms.

Safety Tips

Because you may feel weak or tired, here are some safety tips to follow.

  • If you are told to stay in bed, use the call bell or button when you need help.
  • Use the controls to lower your bed before getting in or out.
  • Sit on the edge of the bed for a minute or so before standing up.
  • Watch out for the wires and tubes that may be around your bed.
  • Try to keep the things you need within easy reach.
  • Only take medicines given to you by nurses. Don't take medicine you brought from home without your doctor's permission.
  • Hold on to grab bars for support when getting in and out of the bathtub or shower and when using the toilet.

Geriatric Evaluation

Older people may have health problems that make it hard for them to live on their own after they leave the hospital. In some hospitals, a team that includes a doctor, nurse, and social worker takes care of the special needs of older patients. This team also may include other specialists and therapists. The team performs a careful exam, called a geriatric assessment, to learn about the patient's physical and mental health, family life, income, living arrangements, access to community services, and ability to perform daily tasks. The team checks for health problems and makes a plan to help older patients get the health care and social services they need after they go home.

For Family and Caregivers

A hospital stay can be very hard for older people. Often the strange routine and lack of sleep can cause confusion. Family and caregivers may be the first to notice these changes. Families should talk to a doctor if they see any confusion.

Ask Questions

During your hospital stay, you may have questions about what’s happening. You may want to ask your doctor or nurse:

  • What will this test tell you? Why is it needed and when will you know the results?
  • What treatment is needed and how long will it last?
  • What are the benefits and risks of treatment?
  • When can I go home?
  • When I go home, will I have to change my regular activities or my diet?
  • How often will I need checkups?
  • Is any other follow-up needed?
  • Who should I call if I have other questions?

Patient Rights

Before you go to the hospital, you might want to think about writing an advance directive. An advance directive says what medical treatment you want if you can't speak for yourself. It also lets you name who you want to make your medical decisions. Two common kinds of advance directives are:

  • Living Will: In a living will, you list the kind of medical care you want (or don't want); it's called a living will because it takes effect while you are still alive.
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care: In a durable power of attorney for health care, you name someone else (a family member or friend, for example) to make your medical decisions if you are unable to make them for yourself. You also can list any treatment you don’t want.

If you have an advance directive, bring a copy of it with you to the hospital. Make sure your doctor has a copy and check to make sure your wishes are part of your medical records. If you have a durable power of attorney for health care, be sure to give a copy to the person you've chosen to act on your behalf.

Going home

When you are ready to go home, you’ll get discharge plans from the medical team and a release form from the hospital business office. Sometimes people go from the hospital to a rehabilitation (rehab) center before going home. The social worker can help you go home or arrange admission to a rehab center.

In An Emergency

In a medical emergency, every second counts! You may have severe pain, a bad injury, or sudden serious illness. In such a life-threatening emergency, seek medical help right away by calling 911. Be sure to tell the operator your problem and the address where you are calling from.

You should always carry the following information:

  • doctor’s name and phone number
  • family members’ names and phone numbers
  • medicines you take, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs
  • medicines you are allergic to
  • health insurance information and policy number

If you have a medical problem such as epilepsy or diabetes, you should wear an ID bracelet or carry an ID card to let rescue workers and hospital staff know about these conditions.


For More Information

Here are some Federal and non-Federal resources.


American Hospital Association

One North Franklin

Chicago, IL 606006-3421



Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

7500 Security Boulevard

Baltimore, MD 21244-1850

800-MEDICARE (toll-free)

800-633-4227 (toll-free)


For more information on health and aging, including nutrition, nursing homes, having surgery, and getting your affairs in order, contact:


National Institute on Aging

Information Center

P.O. Box 8057

Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057

800-222-2225 (toll-free)

800-222-4225 (TTY/toll-free)


To sign up for regular email alerts, go to


Visit NIHSeniorHealth (, a senior-friendly website from the National Institute on Aging and the National Library of Medicine. This website has health information for older adults. Special features make it simple to use. For example, you can click on a button to have the text read out loud or to make the type larger.


National Institute on Aging

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services

Public Health Service

National Institutes of Health


August 2007