Aim To investigate participants’ experiences of visiting hospitalised friends and family members in adult acute medical or surgical wards in NHS hospitals in England, to improve knowledge of hospital visiting practices and to inform future policy-making and professional practice.
Method A review of the contextual influences and the literature identified that hospital visitors might experience many of the characteristics of liminality, which is a state of being between two social structures or ways of being. In 2013, a total of 17 semi-structured, recorded and transcribed interviews were conducted with participants who had been hospital visitors in the period 2011-2013. The transcribed interviews underwent a thematic analysis. Liminality was then used as an analytic lens, and was central to the theoretical framework that was constructed to further consider the experiences of hospital visitors.
Findings Participants experienced the hospitalisation of their friend or family member and their subsequent role as hospital visitors as a suspension of their everyday lives. Liminality was a predominant and consistent theme of the interviews. Five main themes of liminality were identified in relation to hospital visitors’ experiences: total obedience; loss of status; ambiguity and being betwixt and between; uncertainty; and structure and communitas. The findings suggested that nurses consider the area behind the nurses’ station as ‘back stage’; a place they can use for downtime, socialising and computer work. In contrast, hospital visitors perceive the nurses’ station to be a continuation of the ward, where they expect professional ‘front stage behaviour’ from staff.
Conclusion When hospital visitors, already discomfited in their liminal status, encounter nurses’ ‘back-stage behaviour’ at the nurses’ station, their feelings of marginalisation, exclusion and mistrust increase. This may lead them to judge that the nurses lack professionalism and care, which can lead them to make complaints. Increased awareness of hospital visitors’ perceptions might result in fewer complaints, and enable more NHS resources to be directed at improving patient care.