Go when you're sick
Most patients have a weakened immune system, cannot fight off bacteria like they normally can, and are more susceptible to infection. If you have a cough, cold, flu, or fever, it's best hospital etiquette to forget that hospital visit and check in on your loved ones with a phone call (and try these natural cold remedies). "Your bacteria and viruses can also be transferred to employees who are responsible for taking care of your loved ones and other patients," says Rebecca Lee, registered nurse and founder of the natural health resource, remediesforme.com. Lee advises not to take children under 13 to visit a patient because their immune systems aren't as strong as adults, making them susceptible to germs from sick and contagious patients. Anna Renault, member of the Patient & Family Advisory Council for Quality and Safety, advises against entering or leaving a patient's room without washing your hands or using the hand sanitizer. "You cannot see the germs you bring in or take out of the room," she warns.
Bring fresh flowers, food, plants or fruits
It's against hospital etiquette for a guest to bring fresh flowers, food, plants or fruits to a patient without asking first. "Infection control is crucial for patients who are very sick and do not have a strong immune system, such as burn victims, cancer or chemo patients," explains Lee. "Fresh flowers, plants and fruits can carry fungal spores that can infect sick patients. Call the unit ahead of time to see what is appropriate to bring." (Check out germ experts tips on boosting immunity.) Unhealthy food is definitely off the table, because many patients need to stick to strict diets. Lee recalls one time family members kept sneaking in Chinese take-out to a diabetic patient. "For days, the doctors could not understand why the patient's sugar was sky high and their insulin regimen was not adequately controlled," she says. "This caused a delay in their discharge by a few days, solely due to the outside food. Patient with gastric problems are ordered a strict diet to make sure their bowels are not compromised. If your family member is ordered a specific diet, please do not feed them anything other than what is ordered. I've had patients who had to have uncomfortable tubes inserted into their stomachs because their bowels were not ready to handle the regular food they ate."
Compare medical horror stories
This is not the time to bust out your goriest medical horror stories. "Do not bring sad news of someone else being 'sicker than you' or stories of who came to the hospital and never went home alive or without long lasting consequences," says Renault. Equally, don't give patients bad news about things happening in the outside world, be it about unpaid bills, someone in their family getting laid off, or the war on terror. "There is nothing they can do about these things from their bed, and it will only make them feel more helpless and upset," says psychiatrist and author Carole Lieberman, MD. According to licensed clinical psychologist Kate Cummins, good topics include discussing the hospitalization, issues that bring the person happiness (personal interests, traveling, the news), and goals for after the hospitalization. "Try to provide a source of relaxation for the patient in order to help them stay focused on recovery and finding peace while hospitalized," she advises.
Bring outside clothes, pillows, or blankets
A hospital is full of microorganisms, and you don't want to bring them home with you! "When you bring outside clothing, pillows, or blankets to a patient, and then bring them home, you are creating a vessel for the bugs to get into your home," explains Lee. "This puts your family at risk. Patients' bedding and clothing are cleaned with strict guidelines." If a patient does need extra bedding or clothing during their hospitalization, simply ask the staff to bring them whatever they need to make them more comfortable. Here are 50 secrets hospitals don't want to tell you—but every patient should know.
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Speak for patients
Your loved one may be ill, but they are still able to express their views and explain how they feel. "Most of the questions that we ask patients can only be answered by the patient themselves, such as, are you in pain, how much pain are you in, are you nauseous, what symptoms are you are feeling, are your symptoms improving, did you pass gas, etc.," says Lee. "I've heard some family members tell patients to tell the nurses that they are in 10/10 pain because they don't want the patient to be left in any pain whatsoever." Giving patients pain meds can be extremely harmful, and can cause unnecessary side effects and a delay in recovery and discharge. "Pain is very subjective and everyone's pain threshold is different," explains Lee. Do you know the facts about pain meds?
Speak aggressively to hospital staff
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It can be emotional and stressful to see your loved one in pain or discomfort, but ganging up on doctors, nurses and aids is the wrong approach. Try practicing some of these 24 tips for calming down and controlling anger. Then give the staff a break: "It's better to allow them to do their work, and then ask questions," says Barbara Bergin, MD, board certified orthopedic surgeon. "Perhaps designate a spokesperson for the patient and family, if you have a lot of visitors and the patient is unable or unwilling to speak for themselves. It's always nice when a doctor or a nurse wants to spend a little more time in your room, just because they want to. If everyone in the room is hammering them with questions, and speaking aggressively to them, it's just human nature to only spend the necessary amount of time in the room."
Eat from the patient's food tray
If your loved one doesn't finish their meal, you may feel you are saving it from being thrown away by eating it yourself. Don't: This could mislead staff who may be trying to monitor the patient's input versus their bowel/bathroom output. "It may look like the patient is eating well when they are not," warns Renault. "The doctor may assume the patient is getting proper nutrition when they are not." Here are the superfoods every woman needs in her diet.
Get overly emotional
If you're concerned you won't be able to contain your emotions when speaking to your loved one, practice these steps for controlling your worry, and bring support when you visit. "Have a friend sit outside of the patient's room, and if you become overly emotional, tell the patient that you need to step out of the room," suggests Cummins. "Do this in a calm manner and walk out to find your support, and process the difficulty of seeing your loved one in this situation out of view and earshot. Someone who is hospitalized is already experiencing enough stress and they do not need added stressors."
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Disrespect the roommate
Not all patients are lucky enough to have a room of their own. "If you are visiting a loved one, please be respectful of roommates," says family physician Jennifer Caudle, DO, assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. "Keep the noise down, be considerate and remember that the roommate is a patient too." It's important to keep noise down in general in a hospital. "When you are sick, all you want to do is rest," says Lee.
Overstay your welcome
Knowing they have support is important for hospitalized loved ones—but there can easily be too much of a good thing. "Patients are usually woken up every few hours to have their vitals taken and run tests," says Lee. "The time that they have to rest is crucial to their recovery. Keep your visiting time and group members to a minimum." You might even want to pass on these secrets to better sleep.