“Family Only” Hospital Visitation Rules Get Scrapped

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In a victory for patients and their loved ones, a new federal regulation was announced Wednesday that dramatically loosens the rules on hospital visitors. Beginning two months from now, any hospital that cares for Medicare or Medicaid patients must give patients control over who’s allowed to visit their bedsides. This means hospitals will no longer be permitted to limit visitors to “family” or “immediate family.”

Rules like this previously varied by facility and by state. (More on Time.com: Need Health Insurance? Click Here).

Hospital guidelines limiting bedside visitors to legal relatives clearly discriminated against same-sex couples, but as the Obama Administration pointed out when initiating this rule change in April, the restriction affected others as well.

Often, a widow or widower with no children is denied the support and comfort of a good friend. Members of religious orders are sometimes unable to choose someone other than an immediate family member to visit them and make medical decisions on their behalf.

While this change may provide relief for friends and family of patients previous denied the chance to visit their loved ones in the hospital, one other restriction wasn’t addressed — how long and when visitors can be at the bedside. This is more complicated than just ending discrimination of who can visit. There are issues like needed rest and roommates that come into play. (More on Time.com: 5 Keys to Health Reform’s Success or Failure).

But it’s possible today’s rule change could lead to further examination of existing policies.

In a May 2010 commencement address at Yale Medical School, Dr. Donald Berwick, who was chosen by President Obama to oversee Medicare and Medicaid, talked about the pain that strict visiting hours can cause families. In his remarks, Berwick described the true story of a woman only allowed to visit her dying husband in the hospital for 30 minutes at a time, four times a day. The couple, who had been married for 19 years, was rarely apart and these limitations devastated them. Berwick then imagined an alternate scenario, in which he and his wife, one of them facing death, would be allowed to sit and visit with each other as much as they wanted. (More on Time.com: Special Report: Health Care for the Uninsured).

The nurses would pad in and out of the hospital room, checking i.v.s and measuring pulses and planning their dinners and their weekends. And none of what the nurses and doctors did would matter to us at all; we wouldn’t even notice them. We would know exactly who the visitors were — they, the doctors and the nurses. They, they would be the visitors in this tiny corner of our whole lives together — they, not us.

This sounds ideal and yet, it would be unusual in some hospitals and particularly in some intensive care units, where patients often end up in their final days. Food for thought.

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