Families at the bedside: an ethnographic study of vigilance

J M Carr, J P Fogarty
Journal of Family Practice 1999, 48 (6): 433-8

BACKGROUND: Vigilance, the close protective involvement of family members with hospitalized relatives, is a relatively recent phenomenon in the hospital setting. Before the 1960s, hospital visiting policies restricted the presence of family members at the bedside. Policies changed during the 1960s and 1970s when health care professionals recognized that parents' staying with their hospitalized children was beneficial for both the parents and the children. Vigilance later became a phenomenon that included family members staying with adult patients.

METHODS: Two ethnographic studies were conducted to examine the meanings, patterns, and day-to-day experience of vigilance. Sixteen family members, described by the nursing staff as staying with the patient, participated in informal semistructured interviews. Participant observation was also used in data collection.

RESULTS: Data analysis yielded 5 categories of meaning that describe the experience of vigilance: commitment to care, emotional upheaval, dynamic nexus, transition, and resilience.

CONCLUSIONS: Managed care, shortened hospital stays, and cost containment make early involvement of the family in the patient's care imperative. An understanding of the family's needs and experiences is prerequisite to that involvement. The categories of meaning discovered in this research can help health care providers understand family members' experience of vigilance. The implications for the family physician include sensitization and awareness of family members' experiences and the developing of specific actions and interactions fostering a commitment to family-centered care that extends to the hospital setting.

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