Banning flowers in the hospital?

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In the last decade or so, there has been a steadily growing trend in U.K. hospitals of banning bedside flowers. Citing the inconvenience of caring for the blooms, the potential hazard of water dripping onto electronic equipment, and the potential “risk of infection” posed by the stagnant water in vases, medical facilities from Dorset in the south to York in the north have joined the movement against flowers. Yet, according to an editorial and accompanying survey of hospital employees published in the British Medical Journal, all of this petal prohibition may be without legitimate scientific basis.

While a 1973 study did find high levels of bacteria in flower water, more recent study has revealed that the risk of spreading infection to patients was negligible. Another concern driving hospitals to ditch flowers—that they might compete with ailing patients for oxygen—was also proved unfounded. In fact, in December 2007, a representative of the U.K. Department of Health wrote a letter to the British Florist Association confirming that, in spite of the trend in banning flowers, “The Department of Health is not aware of any instance of health care associated infection being traced to cut flowers in the hospital ward setting.”

Yet even if there is no evidence that flowers increase the risk of infection, the poll of hospital workers from the Royal Brompton Hospital and Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, revealed that several viewed the maintenance and presence of bedside flowers as a nuisance. As Dermot Richards-Scully, a nurse at Royal Bromptom Hospital, said, “I hate them… My staff don’t have time to change stagnant water; spillage is responsible for slips, trips and falls; and they cause hay fever.” A previous survey of 39 nurses found that the vast majority—80%—weren’t in favor of flowers on hospital wards.

Yet, all of this focus on the inconvenience of flowers—or indeed the idea that they are out of place in a clinical, medical setting—may be a sign of a larger trend in health care, according to the editorial from Simon Cohn, medical anthropologist at the University of Cambridge. He writes:

“Underlying all of the explicit arguments, the decision to ban flowers seems to reflect a much broader shift towards a model of care that has little time or place for more messy and nebulous elements.”

The problem with that shift, he says, is some of those “messy” elements help patients to feel more at ease. Previous research has shown that flowers not only increase positive mood in patients, but that can also translate to health benefits—such as patients reporting less pain or fatigue. On top of that, while medical treatment can be a scary and isolating experience for some, flowers serve as a reminder of the people supporting them and thinking of them, Cohn says. As he puts it:

“[A]lthough giving flowers can be a sign of private intimacy, in a hospital setting the flowers also publically demonstrate social ties beyond visiting hours. A patient looking at a bouquet doesn’t just see the flowers but the person who gave them.”

What do you think? Is removing flowers from hospital bedsides a simple matter of cleanliness and convenience? Or do the benefits to the patient outweigh any nuisance presented by the blooms?