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If you've ever spent much time in a hospital, you know that visitors are an important part of the healing process. Family and friends lift your spirits, decrease your anxiety, advocate for you, and help you make decisions about your care.
Health care workers understand this, and most organizations make every effort to respect hospital visitation rights while also providing a calm, safe place for patients to recover. Still, visitation policies vary dramatically depending on the hospital and the patient's condition.
Here's what you need to know before visiting a loved one in the hospital.
Hospital Visitation Rights Today
Who has the right to visit a patient in a hospital? The short answer is anyone the patient (or the patient's legal guardian) wants to see.
In the past, hospitals could limit visitation to a patient's immediate family, which discriminated against same-sex couples, domestic partners, and other nontraditional families. A 2010 federal law changed that. Now, any hospital that receives federal funding must grant equal visitation privileges to all visitors, regardless of whether they're legally or biologically related to the patient.
Hospitals can still restrict visitation to certain hours, limit the number of visitors, or deny access to patients based on safety concerns.
Understanding Visitation Policies
Many hospitals allow visitors 24/7 access and suggest appropriate times to visit so that patients can get plenty of rest. Other hospitals limit visitation to set hours and rely on staff discretion to make exceptions to those rules.
In general, visitation policies take into account:
The Unit: Certain wards tend to have stricter visitation policies than others. Intensive care units, for example, might limit the number of visitors or restrict visitation during certain hours, while labor and delivery and pediatric units often require visitors to be signed in or accompanied by a parent. Psychiatric and rehabilitation wards limit visitation to prevent disrupting therapy sessions, while emergency rooms usually limit the number of visitors and deny access to restricted treatment areas.
The Patient's Condition: Even hospitals with liberal visitation policies will limit or restrict access to patients when care providers believe there is a medical reason to do so — for example, if the patient needs rest, has a compromised immune system, or has a highly contagious disease.
The Visitor's Age and Health: Hospitals generally discourage visits from anyone with a fever, cough, or other symptoms of a communicable disease. Some hospitals also limit visits from children, especially during cold and flu season.
Because hospital visitation rights and policies vary and often depend on the patient, consider calling ahead before you visit a sick friend or loved one in the hospital, especially if you'll arrive before or after business hours. Many hospitals also post visiting policies and guidelines on their websites.