Health Break | Published October 23, 2009

Help Stop the Spread of Flu: Visiting Do's and Don'ts

There has been a lot of talk about the flu this season, especially H1N1. And, Mount Nittany Medical Center is serious about protecting our community. We have taken many steps to prevent the spread of illness among our employees, patients and others.

Visitors play an important role in helping prevent the spread of this illness too. As you think about visiting someone in the hospital you may be asking yourself: With widespread flu in the community, should I visit someone in the hospital? How do I show care without jeopardizing my health or theirs? Should I wait until they return home? Is it safe (or wise) to bring my children along with me to the hospital? Although, the Medical Center has not imposed any changes in general visiting guidelines, there are many things to keep in mind when deciding to make a hospital visit.

For example, the emergency department at Mount Nittany Medical Center cared for more than 48,000 people last year. And, although the department was recently expanded by adding three more patient rooms, the Medical Center is strongly encouraging the community to respect patient safety and privacy by abiding by the following guidelines when coming to the ED, especially during this flu season:

• Each patient may have one visitor at bedside. • Only children who are patients should be in the treatment area. • Visitors should remain at the bedside to ensure safety and privacy. • Both parents are permitted with an ill or injured child. • If you are sick, remain in the waiting area as instructed to avoid spreading illness.

These guidelines have recently been further expanded during operation of the emergency department’s flu treatment area. The flu waiting and treatment area is a designated area adjacent to the ED that is staffed during times of peak activity. The area provides greater separation of patients with flu-like illness from those seeking care for other reasons. This separation is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a measure to reduce the risk of spreading the flu. In this area, no visitors are permitted except when the patient is a minor. Minor patients may be accompanied by one parent or guardian.

And, if you are not needing emergency care, but want to visit an inpatient, please remember that patients are not in the hospital as long as they once were. So while patients are hospitalized, they are usually quite ill and very busy. Base your decision to visit on how the patient will feel after an operation or when recuperating from an illness.

Since the seasonal flu season is approaching and H1N1 flu is affecting our community, consider waiting until your friend or family member returns home before you visit. If you decide to come, please follow these general guidelines when visiting the Medical Center:

• Wash your hands before visiting patients. This should be a 10-15 second vigorous scrub using plenty of soap and running water. Hand washing is considered the single most important strategy used to prevent the spread of flu and infection. You may also use the waterless hand rinses in dispensers mounted on the walls outside patient rooms.

• DO NOT visit if you have signs or symptoms of the flu or an infection. If you care enough about the person to visit in the first place, care enough to stay at home if you are ill. Give the patient a call instead and do something special for them after their discharge.

• Limit the number of visitors and keep visits brief. Illness can stress the immune system making the patient more susceptible to infection. The more people the patient is exposed to, the more likely one of them may be coming down with an illness. You may not yet have symptoms but you can still share the infection with a patient. Usually 15-30 minutes is a reasonable length of time for a visit. Most patients often need rest and may have difficulty concentrating on conversations for longer periods. Limit the number of visitors to one or two persons at a time. Any more than that in most rooms is a crowd and compromises the privacy of other patients. Consider moving to a waiting room if more than two visitors are present at any time.

• For their safety and the health of our patients and visiting children, don’t bring children to the hospital unless they are a patient. Hospitals are for patients that are ill or injured not for children. Instruments and equipment than can be very dangerous in the hands of unattended children. Children can be a great pick-me-up for the patient, but their visit may be more appropriate and appreciated when the patient is feeling a little better.

• Respect hospital visiting hours. Patients are kept very busy with therapy, meals, tests, education and rest. Remember that the hospital caregivers are professionals who will keep the patient’s best interests in mind. For the patient’s well being, physicians or nurses may restrict visits for periods of time even during visiting hours.

By observing the above guidelines, family and friends can help the physicians and other healthcare professionals work together to meet the needs of our patients and help prevent the spread of contagious diseases, such as influenza.

Marlene Stetson, RN, infection prevention and control coordinator, Mount Nittany Medical Center

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