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10 Timeless Hospital Visit Principles

In hospitals, emotions range from joy to grief. Pastors must approach visits with openness and understanding. Explore 10 guiding principles for effective and meaningful pastoral hospital care.

Every emotion can be found within the walls of a hospital. 

Behind one door, a couple is experiencing the excitement and pure joy of the birth of their first child. Behind another door, a family grapples with the devastating news that the cancer has spread. Behind another door, a wife says goodbye and begins to grieve the loss of her husband of seventy years. Behind yet another door, a family breathes a sigh of relief and celebrates their mother’s successful surgery. Pastors must be ready to meet, support and encourage people experiencing feelings that span the full range of human emotion. 

Seasoned pastors accustomed to hospital visitation know not to make assumptions about how others feel based on how they would personally respond in that particular situation. They know they cannot assume people waiting for biopsy results are frightened - the individual may feel one or many emotions, including anger, guilt, sadness, and any emotion in between and in any combination. Pastors experienced in hospital visitation know to enter a room with an openness that will allow them to determine how the patient feels, both physically and emotionally.

Whether you are about to make your first hospital visit or your thousandth, these ten principles are invaluable guideposts for meaningful and productive hospital visitation.

1. Check in at the nurses’ station.

In her MinistryMag article, Kathy McMillan, M.A. says to identify yourself as a pastor and ask the nurses on call if it is a good time to visit. For many reasons, clergy often arrive outside of visiting hours. Most hospitals will allow pastors to visit at any time, especially if the patient or their family has requested their presence. Pastors should always carry their ministerial license or credentials. This proof of ministry is recognized by hospital staff as a legitimate form of identification that allows pastoral access to patients who need to be visited, even outside of normal visiting hours.

2. Don’t overstay your welcome.

You'll find that just five to ten minutes is enough time when visiting someone who is very ill or appears to be tired. It's the fact that you visited, not the length of time you stay, that gives your patient the feeling of care and support. As Rudolph E. Grantham explains:

"How long you stay in a hospital room is usually determined by your closeness to the patient, by his or her physical and emotional condition at the time and by the purpose of your visit. To some patients, we are a necessary source of strength; to others, a good friend; and to other patients, we are guests who must be entertained. The pastor must assess which of these he or she is to the patient and judge the length of the visit accordingly."

3. There are times you should not stay at all.

If the patient’s family members are present and appear to be involved in a serious or private conversation, simply ask if it is better that you come back another time. This is why it's best to call ahead rather than show up unannounced. Some families prefer to be present when a pastor visits. Advanced notice gives the family time to be in the room when you arrive.

4. Medications can make patients respond in different ways.

Certain medications can make patients irritable, restless and sometimes incoherent. Additionally, shock and trauma might cause patients to respond in unpredictable ways. Speaking with family or close friends who have been present can provide valuable context about the situation and insight into the patient’s mindset.

5. Sit or stand in a place where you can be seen easily.

Stand near the bed if the patient cannot roll over or sit up. Be aware of which way the patient is facing and stay in their line of sight. If the patient is sharing a room, be sure to ask if you can pull the curtain to provide a sense of privacy.

6. Practice good hand hygiene.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say most germs that cause serious infections in healthcare are spread by people’s actions. Hand hygiene is a great way to prevent infections. Wash your hands and/or use hand sanitizer before fully entering a patient's room. There will be situations where you will need to wear a mask while other visits may require a gown, gloves, and a mask. These precautions are for your safety as well as the safety of the patient.

7. Enter the room with a neutral mood.

It's best to not enter the room overly excited or somber. Evaluate the temperament of the patient and others in the room and be in a similar spirit with them. You are there to provide care, encouragement and support, and can best serve your purpose after evaluating the different emotions within the room. Presuming the mood ahead of time can communicate a lack of empathy and understanding toward the patient and their family.

8. Listen intently.

We tend to be uncomfortable with silence. Stop and absorb what the patient is saying without feeling the need to respond. Anyone can hear words and repeat them, but it takes discernment to read between the lines, interpret body language and discover the real message. Don’t feel that you have to respond verbally to everything. You might be the only person with whom the patient can share their anxieties, fear, anger and other feelings. An attentive listener may be exactly what they need.

9. You may provide care to relatives and close friends of the patient, too.

There will be many cases when you interact with immediate and extended family members. These members of the patient’s support network are likely experiencing many complex emotions as well. Introduce yourself to those present with the patient, and take care not to make any assumptions about family relationships or dynamics. There may be strained relationships and they are present solely because their family member is in the hospital. Patients and families will share family information they want you to know.

10. Train and grow others to make hospital visits.

As a church grows the number of pastoral visits increases as well, and one pastor responding to every hospital visitation request can prove unsustainable. The good news is that pastoral care is something that can be scaled to help your church reach many. It takes a team, a method of organization and the willingness to empower others.

Pastors who embrace these principles can instill a sense of comfort and compassion within the walls of every hospital room they enter. Setting personal preconceptions aside, maintaining professional practices and listening to the needs of patients and families will help pastors foster genuine and meaningful connections that enrich the lives of their congregants. As connections develop and their congregations grow, pastors will have the tools and experience to build care teams and care strategies that allow them to reach more people in need.

Notebird is easy-to-use, dedicated pastoral care software that helps teams make sure no one falls through the cracks. Learn more.

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