Healthcare News & Insights

Are get-well gifts a hazard to your patients’ health?

Visitors are good for your patients. Patients’ spirits are lifted by seeing familiar faces, and receiving get-well gifts and comfort items from home. But some hospitals see visitors as just another possible source of contamination to battle – spreading germs and bringing in allergens such as flowers, latex balloons and stuffed animals. That’s why some facilities are tightening restrictions on these gifts. 

GettyImages-74179655Mostly, they’re being banned in areas where patients with compromised immune systems are treated. For decades now, intensive care units tended to be flower-free, balloon-free areas. But facilities are extending the reach of the gift-free zones to include ICU step-down units, cardiac-care, pediatric, labor and delivery, cancer and transplant units.

According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, experts say there isn’t a lot of evidence to prove flowers, plants and balloons spread infections and illness. But the banning of such gifts stems from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations for immunosuppressive patients.

The CDC encourages hospitals to keep fresh and dried flowers, as well as ornamental plants, away from patients with compromised immune systems because they can serve as a reservoir for Aspergillus and other fungal species.

And when you’re working so hard at preventing hospital-acquired infections, why allow things in your facility that could contaminate patients?

After all, it could affect your quality ratings and Medicare reimbursement.

Some may argue that visitors themselves are huge carriers of possible contaminants. But there are hand-sanitizing stations all over most hospitals for visitors to use, and masks and gowns for them to wear if needed.

Plus, patients need their visitors. They don’t need flowers, balloons and stuffed animals.

Sources of allergens

These get-well gifts also serve as a source of allergens. People are allergic to pollen, and nurses can get it on their clothes and transfer it to patients. Also, many people have latex allergies. So many facilities feel it’s better to forgo the get-well gifts than take their chances.

There’s also the risk of balloon strings and ribbons getting tangled in equipment and impeding treatment by getting between patients and their caregivers, which can happen with flowers, too. And flowers can be knocked over, spilling water on equipment and damaging it – an expensive problem. In addition, spills from flowers can be trip-and-fall hazards.

Experts also say that stuffed toys with eyes, noses, buttons and beads pose choking hazards to young children and should be banned in pediatric units. But telling parents their sick children can’t have their favorite stuffed animals when they’re already stressed could lead to some unpleasant situations for staff.

So what get-well gifts are OK for visitors to bring your patients?

In the Wall Street Journal article, Susan Dolan, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, is quoted as saying, “Cards are nice. Books are nice – but remember, pretty much any surface could be a source of bacteria. It’s important to check with the nursing staff before you bring anything in.”

Major source of bacteria

One major source of bacteria that visitors bring into your hospitals and patient rooms is cellphones! The same Wall Street Journal article cited a 2012 study from the University of Arizona that found cellphones carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats!

While cellphones were banned at one time from most hospitals due to the fear of electromagnetic waves interfering with medical equipment, there’s little evidence to back that up. So many facilities have lifted their cellphone bans.

However, some facilities still have bans on cellphones in the ICU and other high-tech areas, because they’re noisy in an area that already has a lot of alarms going off, and they can be trip-and-fall hazards if visitors are charging their phones.

If you think about it, any items visitors bring with them could be sources of contamination. People put their bags and purses down on floors in restaurants and bathrooms, and on trains and buses, where they could pick up all kinds of contaminants.

So what’s your facility to do?

First off, face the fact you’re not going to stop visitors from bringing all contaminants into your facilities. So pick and choose your battles wisely to focus on the items that present the biggest threat to your patients’ well-being.


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  1. FactualObserver says:

    Wow, no serious mention of latex allergy, which, although rare, can be disabling and even deadly. Not just latex gloves, but latex balloons include a powder which distributes the allergen into the air, where it can be inhaled by the allergic person. The powder is distributed throughout the building or section by the heating and AC, and hangs in the air for days. The irony is that the visitor who brings in rubber balloons isn’t likely to see the consequences of his or her decision to do so.

    While latex powder doesn’t affect most people, those it does affect can end up seriously ill, and children are more susceptible to it than adults. Although the latex glove manufacturers have downplayed the research and tried to call it into question, anywhere from 1% to 6% of people are allergic to natural rubber latex. Health care workers who have been exposed to the powder for years have a much higher rate of allergy, with up to 25% having some kind of reaction.

    That’s why a lot of hospitals ban latex balloons — the same way they’ve banned powdered latex gloves — for the safety of staff, visitors, and patients.

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