Hospital Etiquette, Spelled Out

Photo by Claudio Rossol

Recently my father had to be hospitalized. His condition required more than an overnight stay. I am thankful for hospitals and the staff who work tirelessly providing quality care.

Yet, hospitals aren’t usually happy places. Of course, it’s a different story if the visit is to welcome a new baby. But most of us will eventually find ourselves traipsing through those sterile corridors to visit a family member or a friend coping with stressful circumstances. And while our focus will be on the well-being of our loved one, practicing a few common courtesies can ensure the experience is a bit less upsetting. Here’s an outline for practicing good hospital etiquette:

H — Honor the visiting hours designated by the hospital. Call to make sure the patient is up to having visitors and don’t be offended if the answer is no. Try again the next day. And honor the hospital staff. They are providing care for patients facing trauma, pain and distress. Whether making a bed, emptying the trash or taking a pulse, a simple smile and a thank you are very much appreciated.

O — Offer to help the patient. Sometimes a patient may need a pet fed or plants watered at home. Or offer to drive the patient’s spouse, especially if they are elderly. My brother drove my mother to visit our father, and it was so helpful. She could be dropped off at the hospital entrance and didn’t have to walk, in the heat, through the vast parking lot.

S — Short visits. Keep your social call brief. Watch the patient for signs of fatigue; be sensitive about leaving, even if the person asks you to stay. Promise to come the next day. Also, be careful about wearing perfume when you visit. A strong scent can be nauseating to the patient.

P — Pleasantness. Be cheerful. Keep the conversation pleasant and upbeat. Don’t tell horror stories about Uncle Wilbur who had the same thing and ended up with a staph infection from his hospital stay. Don’t make comments about terrible hospital food. Negative talk is hard for a patient already dealing with the anxiety of being hospitalized. Light and uplifting conversation makes you a welcome visitor.

I — If you must use your cell phone, leave the patient’s room, and do not stand around in the hallway making phone calls. Most hospitals have rules posted about cell phone use. Be respectful of other patients and staff regarding cell phones.

T — Touch the patient only if it’s OK. Find out first. Be careful about physical contact. Holding a hand is almost always comforting. Also, don’t sit on the patient’s bed. If you need to sit, ask the staff to bring you a chair. Stand if there is not a vacant seat. After all, you’re only there for a short visit.

A — Ask a family member or the nursing staff before taking a gift. Some patients may have allergies to plants or flowers. Latex balloons fall into the same category. Food is usually not a good idea, especially if the patient is on a restricted diet. Alternative gifts might include magazines, books or a gift card to a favorite coffee shop.

L — Leave the room when a nurse or doctor comes in. Respect the patient’s privacy. However, if the patient is a relative, it might be helpful to have a designated family member also “hear” what is being said. Often a patient is under duress and can’t process information or recall what was discussed. I remember a very traumatic hospital visit. The doctor kindly spoke to our entire family group. It was so helpful. We could compare notes, remind one another about forgotten details, and be encouraged.

Hopefully, remembering these few common courtesies will make an unpleasant situation bearable.

Kathryn Barker has never met a child, a tea, or a baby animal she didn’t love. An avid photographer, Kathryn has had tea in a ger in Mongolia, viewed the Three Gorges Dam in China and waved to the Queen of England. She maintains a tea booth at the Oregon St. Antique Mall. Visit her at or on Facebook and Twitter at tea4kate.

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Kathryn Barker has never met a child, a tea, or a baby animal she didn’t love. With her Sweet Husband of 43 years, she has: raised three extraordinary children, doctored all manner of farm animal, driven a team of horses, made soap, spun wool and opened a tea room. An avid photographer, Kathryn has had tea in a ger in Mongolia, viewed the Three Gorges Dam in China and waved to the Queen of England. She maintains a tea booth at the Oregon St. Antique Mall. Visit her at or on Facebook and Twitter at tea4kate.
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11 Responses

  1. Avatar rmv says:

    Thank you Kathryn, VERY TRUE!! 🙂

    Oh, how i wish the common courtesies of yesteryear

    could be with US ALL today.

    GOD BLESS AMERICA (and her children!) 🙂

    • Avatar Kate says:

      Thank you rmv. Sometimes I have wondered what happened to good old fashioned manners too….and then I am surprised by witnessing polite behavior and I have to say, it makes my day! Thanks again for your kind comment.

  2. Really nice suggestions, Kathryn!

    Maybe your article should be passed out to people walking in the hospital doors. : )

  3. Avatar Joanne Lobeski Snyde says:

    Great article. People don't know a thing unless they've learned it along the way. I remember that when I am dealing with rude or insensitive students who don't know a different way to behave. But everyone can learn.

    • Avatar Kate says:


      You have such a positive outlook and you are so right. Many who appear to be rude don't mean to be, they just haven't had exposure to another way. It must be very encouraging to see positive changes in students.

      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Avatar Michele says:

    Great article. Sorry for the late response – just back from vacation and catching up!

    May I add one suggested "rule" for hospital visits? If you don't know the patient well enough to have been to his/her home, or vice versa, the hospital is probably not the place to grow your friendship. Visits from people you barely know when you are at your worst is more stressful than comforting. A more appropriate gesture in this case would be sending a card or flowers, or calling to offer support or assistance.


    • Avatar Kate says:


      No worries.

      I am sorry for my late replies….have been in Sacramento once again…taking care of my precious parents.

      You are absolutely right though, caring for someone implies sensitivity in any given situation. If you don't know the patient well, a less invasive gesture of kindness would be far more appropriate.

      Thank you for you suggestion…I'll have to see if I can work it into the format…LOL!

  5. Avatar shelly shively says:

    Great article, Kate! I agree with Michele about visitations of people who aren't close relations. Hospitals would do well to have these suggestions in phamplet form for all who come to visit. Unfortunately, many people assume they are the exception to these suggestions, ranging from sitting on the bed, overstaying the time or negative conversation. If the point of a visit is to covey caring & concern, far better to serve in truly practical ways, as you mentioned with offering rides. Giving a nice card with brief message that doesn't tax the patient, including a gift card for grocery, gas, or even certificate for professional housecleaning, offering to tend their pets & plants would definitely show love in a way that doesn't expect reciprocity from the patient in the form of upholding part of a conversation. Same for calling a patient on the phone in the hospital, which can be stressful and exhausting.

    Thanks, Kate, for using your experience as an opportunity for helping educate others. Well done!