Every hospital has a patient's bill of rights, experts say; these include the right to see your medical records and to stay informed about treatment decisions, as well as other liberties that many people are unaware of. (In psychiatric wards, some rights may be restricted.)
"Even very smart people usually have no idea what they can demand, what their rights are" in a hospital, said Jeanne Kennedy, a patient representative in Palo Alto, Calif.
When people are ill, survival and pain usually trump any concern over rights. Advocates recommend having a friend or family member present, someone who can at least help with a trip to the bathroom or make sure that pain medication arrives on time.
Convincing hospital staff members that they are caring for a person, not just a disease, may take more doing, patient representatives say.
For example, many adult patients find it irritating to be addressed by their first name, especially by a doctor or a nurse who is much younger.
"Typically, it's the doctor who comes up and says, 'Mary, I'm Dr. Smith,' " Ms. Kennedy said. "And my solution is to say, 'Hello, Joe.' "
Even normally forceful people can become passive when lying, weakened, in a hospital bed. They forget that they can ask for things - a snack between meals, a book, help mailing a letter or sending a fax - as long as the requests are within reason. And although doctors, nurses and other staff members usually come and go at will, a patient can limit visits by chaplains, friends and even family members.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of getting the patient to speak up," said Irene Zbiczak, president of the Society for Healthcare Consumer Advocacy, an association of patient representatives. "No one knows what you want until you say so."
Most hospitals now have medical social workers, patient representatives or an ombudsman on staff. As employees of the hospital, they are there in part to protect against legal grievances, but they can also take the patient's side.
"Very often, patients are afraid of retribution if they complain about a staff member," Ms. Kennedy said, "and in point of fact we cannot promise there won't be retribution. But we can tell them that if it does happen, call me, and then I can make sure it doesn't happen again."
Finally, patient representatives strongly urge that people entering a hospital for any serious procedure plan for the worst: filling out an advance medical directive, a widely available hospital form, will instruct doctors and loved ones what to do in case you cannot do it yourself.