It has become an increasingly common sight in hospitals to see patients wheeled between various wards, units, treatments rooms and departments. It is standard procedure within hospitals that when a patient needs to be transported, it is done via a wheelchair, even when patients are perfectly capable of walking themselves.

There are many good and valid reasons for this blanket approach, however, in a bid to standardise procedure and remove decision making powers from healthcare workers, the question needs to be asked – has a culture of separation of patient and staff been created? As the porter collects the patient transport wheelchair from the bay and wheels it to his or hers intended destination, are they thinking about the patient? Will there be any conversation? Or has the patient become one more body to transport, one more task to perform before the end of the day?

Is the fear of litigation causing patients to be treated simply as a collective risk to be managed rather than what they are, often scared and vulnerable people with individual needs. Many feel it should be within the power of a healthcare professional to determine if a patient can walk to their next destination. Not only would this save time and hospital resources, but it could be a small act of independence that allows patients to feel a small sense of control over what is happening to them whilst they are staying in the hospital. It would also act as an opportunity for the patient and carer to learn more about each other and to connect in way that is not possible under a catch-all rule.

Beyond the practical element, there may be a more serious side-effect to the autonomy of wheeling every patient around.’Superbugs’ and hospital infections are a battle continually faced by healthcare facilities and unfortunately, hospital wheelchairs are classic examples of an item which could become easily contaminated, and cause illness to spread around a facility. If there is limited conversation between the patient and the staff member who is transporting them, the staff may not realise that the person may be carrying some kind of infection or contagious illness. The wheelchair is then likely to be used by many more people and if it has not been properly treated then it is easy to see how easy it is for illnesses to spread. Anyone using the wheelchair will become exposed to the infection and could end up contracting an illness. Using wheelchairs less will reduce this risk as less people will be sharing the same chairs.

A blanket approach to the use of wheelchairs will almost certainly have contributed to the reduction of accidents in hospitals but many feel that a more personal approach is now needed, especially when it is equally possible that other types of ‘accidents’ may have also been caused by the use of wheelchairs. It is a tough decision to make. Ultimately however, the goal of any healthcare professional should be to treat patients as the individuals they are, not just as a risk factor to be eliminated.