No flowers, no balloons: Why hospitals are cracking down on patient gifts

Some policies spring from an abundance of caution

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Aug. 13, 2019.

Many hospitals are tightening restrictions on gifts to patients in an effort to combat hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) and other safety threats, Melinda Beck writes for the Wall Street Journal.

Most ICUs have banned flowers for decades, and many hospitals also ban latex balloons to protect patients who are allergic to latex. But as for other gift policies, "every place has its quirks," says Jeff Gaster, owner of CitiFloral, which delivers flowers and other gifts to hospitals in New York City. "It varies with each hospital, each unit, sometimes each patient."

For instance, some hospitals ban all balloons, while others allow Mylar balloons, which are made from a synthetic material. At New York Presbyterian Hospital, fresh, dried, and artificial flowers are allowed in some areas of the hospital, but they're banned in labor and delivery areas, oncology wards, transplant-patient rooms, and nurseries.

The reasoning behind the bans can vary as well. For instance, some psychiatric facilities ban balloons because patients could use the strings to hurt themselves. NYU Langone Medical Center bans balloons in patient areas as the strings can become tangled in IV poles and other equipment or "create a barrier between the patient and the clinical team," says Maxine Simon, the hospital's chief regulatory officer.

CDC recommends that fresh flowers, dried flowers, and ornamental plants—which can harbor mold—be kept away from patients with compromised immune systems. The agency recommends that only staff not directly involved with patient care handle the plants.

"Even if the patient isn't allergic, the pollen could get on a health care worker's clothes and be carried into the next room, where the next patient might have allergies," says Susan Dolan, president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.  

The hospitals' policies spring from an abundance of caution, as little evidence directly links flowers and plants to patient infections or illnesses. "It's not cut-and-dried, if you'll pardon the pun," Dolan says, "which is why you see a spectrum of what hospitals will and won't allow" (Beck, Wall Street Journal, 6/6). 

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