When my baby daughter was about to have major emergency surgery, I frantically asked one of the doctors a lot of questions and received only some of the answers I needed. Later I learned that this doctor was NOT my daughter’s actual surgeon. He was a surgery resident who, incidentally, was later fired by the hospital for an unrelated issue. Had I known whom to talk to, my nerves would have been better calmed by getting answers directly from my daughter’s surgeon.
Now that I have worked in the healthcare industry for more than 30 years, I realize that there are many different people in the hospital called “Doctor.” Knowing who’s who can help you get the answers you need.
Let’s talk about the kinds of doctors you may encounter while in the hospital.
A resident has graduated from medical school and is starting his or her training in the hospital. They may be brand new–fresh out of school–or they may be a second, third or fourth year resident. Generally, the resident gathers information for the doctor who is actually in charge of your care.
A fellow is someone who has graduated from their residency and has a “fellowship” to specialize in something specific, like “nephrology” or “cardiology.” This doctor may be able to answer some of your questions, particularly in his or her area of specialty.
Often this is the doctor who is in charge of your case. He or she has finished their residency and fellowship training. This doctor may also be the “admitting” doctor. This doctor should be able to answer most of your questions. He or she will also be the doctor to approve your discharge from the hospital.
Why is it important to know which doctor you are talking to?
Because many of the doctors that visit you have limitations on the questions they can answer.
Junior doctors will be able to provide some limited information. The attending physician will ultimately decide what to do about your care.
When you are trying to determine what is going on with your care in a big hospital, it can seem overwhelming.
If your attending doctor or specialist is either rounding very early in the morning or very late at night so you are not able to speak with them, tell the nurse you have some questions and ask when the doctor would be available to answer them.
If you don’t get the answers you need, ask to talk to a supervisor who can help. Every hospital has a patient advocate or a patient relations office. They should be able to help you get your questions answered.
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