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How to Visit Someone in the Hospital

The Do's and Don'ts of a Hospital Visit

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Updated June 23, 2008

A big topic in patient empowerment is patient safety in the hospital, sounding warnings about medication errors, wrong site surgeries, hospital acquired infections and other perils that present themselves in a setting where so many people are so sick or injured.

It might surprise you to know that among those hospital safety hazards are visitors and advocates, who potentially introduce problems to the patients they hope to cheer or assist. The problems may be directly related to physical harm, or may even be mental or emotional.

It can be difficult to visit a patient in the hospital, but you can have a positive influence on your friend or loved one's recovery if you follow some simple visitor guidelines. Knowing the do's and don'ts may give you the confidence you need.

Here are some "do's" for hospital visitors:

Do ask your patient's permission to visit before you arrive. Ask her to be candid with you, and if she prefers you not visit, ask her if another day would be better, or if she would prefer you visit once she gets home. Many patients love visitors, but some just don't feel up to it. Do your patient the courtesy of asking permission.

Do wash your hands and sanitize them before you touch the patient or hand the patient something you've been touching. If you wash your hands, then touch something else, like a telephone or TV remote or even the bed linens or your jacket, wash your hands and sanitize them again. Infections come from almost any source and the pathogens can survive on surfaces for days. You can't risk being responsible for making your favorite patient even sicker than she already is.

Do take balloons or flowers as long as you know your patient isn't allergic to them, and is in a room by herself. If your patient shares a hospital room, you won't want to take either, because you don't know if the roommate has an allergy. Most solid color balloons are latex, which is rubber, and some people are allergic to rubber. When in doubt, take mylar balloons or don't take any at all.

Do consider alternatives to balloons and flowers: a card, something a child has made for you give to the patient, a book to read, a crossword puzzle book, even a new nightgown or pair of slippers are good choices. The idea isn't to spend much money; instead it's about making the patient feel cared for without creating problems that might trigger an allergic reaction.

Do turn off your cell phone, or at least turn the ringer off. Different hospitals have different rules about where and when cell phones can be used. In some cases, they may interfere with patient-care devices, so your patient can be at risk if you don't follow the rules. In other cases, it's simply a consideration for those who are trying to sleep and heal and don't want to be annoyed by ring tones.

Do stay for a short time. It's the fact that you have taken the time to visit, and not the length of time you stay, that gives your patient the boost. Staying too long may tire her out. Better to visit more frequently, but for no more for a half an hour or so each time.

Do leave the room if the doctor or provider arrives to examine or talk to the patient. The conversation or treatment she provides is private, and unless you are a proxy, parent, spouse or someone else who is an official advocate for the patient, that conversation is not your business. You can return once the provider leaves.

Here are some "don'ts" for hospital visitors:

Don't enter the hospital if you have any symptoms that could be contagious. Neither your patient nor other hospital workers can afford to catch whatever you have. If you have symptoms like a cough, runny nose, rash or even diarrhea, don't visit. Make a phone call or send a card instead.

Don't take young children to visit unless it's absolutely necessary. Even then, check with the hospital before you take a child with you. Many hospitals have restrictions on when children may visit.

Don't take food to your patient unless you know the patient can tolerate it. Many patients, especially those with certain diseases or even those who have recently had anesthesia for surgery, are put on special diets while in the hospital. our goodies could cause big problems.

Don't visit if your presence will cause stress or anxiety. If there is a problem in the relationship, wait until after the patient is well enough to go home before you stress her out by trying to mend that relationship.

Don't expect the patient to entertain you. Your friend or loved one is there to heal and get healthy again, not to talk or keep you occupied. It may be better for your patient to sleep or just rest than to carry on a conversation with you. If you ask her before you visit, gauge her tone of voice as well as the words she uses. She may try to be polite, but may prefer solitude instead of a visit.

Don't stay home, on the other hand, because you assume your friend or loved one prefers you not visit. You won't know until you ask, and your friend or loved one will appreciate the fact that you are trying to help her by asking the question.

Don't smoke before visiting or during a visit, even if you excuse yourself to go outdoors. The odor from the smoke is nauseating to many people, and some patients have a heightened sense of smell while taking certain drugs or in the sterile hospital environment. At most it will cause them to feel sicker and if your friend is a smoker herself, you'll cause her to crave a cigarette, and that may be problematic.

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