In normal times (pre-COVID-19), going to the hospital for an illness or injury is extremely stressful and scary for both the patient and their loved ones. During COVID-19, that stress and anxiety are amplified because of the visitor restriction policies implemented by some hospitals under the guise of preventing the spread of the virus.
I am a nurse, though I no longer practice as a clinician. I started my career in nursing working in the Medical Intensive Care Unit where I saw day in and day out the profound effect illness can have on patients and their families. I also learned how extraordinarily important it is for patients to have an advocate by their side, as well as the emotional support that comes along with being looked after by a loved one. I tell everyone that you should never leave a loved one in a hospital alone without someone there to watch out for them and advocate for their care and needs, but because of COVID-19 restrictions that is exactly what is now taking place.
I experienced this firsthand recently when a close family member was hospitalized for two weeks; it was a nightmare for her — sick, scared, alone — and for me as her health-care agent trying to advocate for her care, as well as a concerned family member trying to provide her emotional support. The shock of showing up at the ER and being told she would have to go in alone, too weak to walk on her own or form complete sentences, was something neither of us was expecting. A couple of months earlier my mother-in-law was hospitalized at a different hospital and my wife was able to be with her daily. Therefore, surprised and upset, all I could do was watch helplessly as they took her back into the ER alone.
There is a wealth of research showing the importance family involvement plays on recovery and healing, not to mention mental health and well-being. Having the support of a loved one at the bedside can decrease the length of stay, decrease anxiety, and improve outcomes. Isolating patients from their families (and advocates) therefore seems antithetical to the patient-centered care espoused in health care ad nauseam — and honestly, it is just wrong. My family members — and many, many others — are experiencing this firsthand.
As a nurse and public health practitioner I understand the seriousness of the pandemic. I am vehemently pro-mask, I social distance with the best of them, I wash my hands incessantly, and there are stretches of days that I don’t even leave the house . I have never taken this pandemic lightly and I fully understand the toll this virus has taken on my colleagues, our health system, and this country. But there are unanticipated tolls as well, tolls not caused by COVID-19 itself, but by the restriction instituted by the same institutions designed to heal the sick and injured.
Certainly, there are ways for hospitals to mitigate the spread of the virus while keeping families together. Some, like the one my mother-in-law just happened to show up at, are allowing visitors with limits including just one visitor per day with their hospitalized family member.
Family presence for hospitalized patients should be standard of care at all hospitals, at all times, and for all patients, regardless of the pandemic, which has now gone on for 11 long months. I believe these COVID-19 visitor restrictions will have untoward consequences for patients and families. I urge my clinical colleagues, if they truly believe in patient-centered care, to make family presence central to that care, and speak up and advocate for the reinstatement of family visitation during hospitalization.
Marion Leary is a nurse, public health practitioner, and activist.