Visiting a Patient in the Hospital

It’s the thought that counts

First, do no harm. That paraphrase of the Hippocratic oath applies to visitors as well as physicians. While the support of family and friends can be important during a hospital stay, visits can sometimes have unintended consequences that range from just tiring the patient to helping spread an infection that may lengthen the hospital stay or worse. We offer here a few guidelines to make sure your visits have a positive effect on the healing process.

Call for permission to visit first

Some patients may have privacy concerns and not want people to see them when they’re sick or hooked up to machines. Others may just not have the stamina. Be understanding if the answer is no, and follow up in a couple of days. A few days can make a big difference in a patient’s stamina and attitude.

Bring good physical and emotional health

To avoid risks to the patient’s condition or attitude, don’t visit if you have a cold or fever, or when you’re feeling particularly blue. Throat only a little scratchy? Think it will probably be fine? Think again. A call to let the patient know you’re thinking of them, but are not in perfect health so won’t be visiting, can be a really meaningful gift.

Keep the visit brief

Visits are nurturing, but they’re also draining. Patients may not be aware of how a visit may be tiring them out until later. For most patients, 20 – 30 minute visits are a good rule of thumb. If possible, you can ask the nursing staff for a recommendation for the patient you want to visit. Given a choice, most patients would prefer more frequent, but shorter, visits. Even if that’s not practical, don’t try to make up for lack of frequency with a longer duration.

Turn off or silence your cell phone

If taking a call is unavoidable, take it outside the room, and be sure to comply with hospital policy about where cell phone use is acceptable.

Make it easy for the patient

Position yourself so that it’s easy and painless for the patient to see you. Expect to carry the conversation, not to be entertained. Perhaps read them a book passage, some poetry or a news item that’s interesting. Or, depending on the patient’s mood and condition, you should also be prepared to listen more than you talk. A main purpose of the visit is to keep the patient relaxed and to relieve the monotony of hospital routine.

Wash and sanitize your hands

This is obviously one we care about a lot. Before you touch the patient, make sure you’ve washed and sanitized your hands. If you touch something else—privacy curtain, TV remote, telephone, anything—after washing your hands, repeat the wash and sanitize procedure before touching the patient. If your hand hygiene during the visit seems excessive, even obsessive, you’re probably hitting the right level.

Bring a leave-behind

Flowers, candy or balloons are cheerful reminders of your care and concern when patients are well enough to eat, or neither they nor their roommate are allergic to flowers or balloons. (Mylar balloons are usually a better choice than rubber, since patients or roommates are much less likely to be allergic to mylar than rubber.) If the patient will be leaving the hospital soon, consider bringing the gift to their home instead to avoid giving them one more thing to keep track of during checkout. Sometimes a card or a book to read is the simplest and best bet.