Viewpoint: Why hospitals should involve families in patient care

Although hospitals and physicians typically attempt to keep families out of patient rooms because they believe they interfere with care or inadvertently introduce infections, family members can often be a hospital patient's greatest care advocate, argues Sushrut Jangi, MD, a gastroenterology fellow at Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital, in an op-ed for The Boston Globe.

Here are five insights from the op-ed.

1. Certain physicians believe the presence of family members could exhaust patients or complicated personal might induce dangerous levels of stress, Dr. Jangi wrote. "A family might inadvertently bring infections into the patient room from the outside world or crowd out the medical team from attending to the ill," Dr. Jangi added. "Yet it turns out that we've been mostly wrong about all of this."

2 To further this point, Dr. Jangi noted patients who are seriously ill have shorter stays in the intensive care unit when their family is involved and research does not support the idea that relatives introduce infection. Additionally, patients who have had debilitating strokes gain more function back with familial support.

3. "Families don't obstruct us — they are our allies," Dr. Jangi wrote. "Physicians spend about 15 percent of their work hours face-to-face with patients. Nurses, too, have their hands full. Sometimes, details elude us." In this way, family members can serve as a voluntarily care giver throughout the day when nurses and physicians are providing care elsewhere. Family members may also be the first to recognize when a patient's health changes.

4. If physicians fail to treat patients' families as partners in medical care, they may be missing a significant resource, Dr. Jangi noted, citing an argument from Giora Netzer, MD, who said hospitals should lift restrictions on family presence in ICUs because families can contribute to beneficial health outcomes and strict visitation policies often exclude low-income families.

5. "Some hospitals should relax their visitation policies and may need to redesign space to accommodate families," Dr. Jangi wrote. "Families ultimately can also offer something that doctors really can't: comfort. [The] luckier — and, often, healthier [patients] — are the sick who can convalesce with kin at their side."

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