The changing rules for hospital visits
I wish for everyone to have a happy and healthy new year. But if you're starting the year out with a loved one in the hospital, be aware that visiting rules have changed, even for non-COVID patients, and will continue to evolve.
Here are some things to expect, along with tips on being a good visitor and an effective advocate for your loved one.
1) Find out the visitation policies ahead of time. Some hospitals will only let one person visit for the patient's entire stay. For example, Northwestern University Hospital allows two visitors at a time in a private room, but only one per patient in a semiprivate room; both policies are for paitents not being treated for COVID-19. Northwest Community Hospital announced Dec. 27 that it is shutting down visitation entirely due to omicron.
Also, visiting hours are being strictly enforced. Don't argue with a staff member when they tell you it's time to leave.
2) Be prepared for safety protocols before you are approved to visit. These days, you will need to show a picture ID, be screened for COVID (symptoms and temperature check) and wear a visitor badge for the entirety of your visit.
3) You will need to wear a mask over your nose and mouth the whole time you are in the facility. This is for your protection, as well as for staff members and other patients. Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hasn't yet changed its guidance, some doctors are recommending that medical or surgical grade masks should be worn because of the spread of the omicron variant.
4) If it's a planned admission, decide who will be the primary visitor and be sure to let other family members know. Find out whether the patient has an advance medical directive and medical power of attorney.
The person who holds the medical power of attorney might also be the best primary visitor because the patient can give permission for them to speak with medical personnel, access medical records and advocate for them. This is especially important if the family member has difficulty communicating because of age or special needs.
5) Be ready for when the doctor walks in. Write down your questions in advance; you could even share the questions with family members on Google Drive so they can ask questions. Write down answers, too!
6) Get in touch with the hospital social worker or enlist a patient advocate. The medical system is so confusing, you may feel overwhelmed. Having a patient advocate at your side, who understands the system and can ask questions, will help you make sense of medical issues and treatment options. It's hard to do all of the advocating on your own.
7) If you're visiting a senior or a family member with special needs, let the doctors know if they have a hearing, visual or cognitive impairment. And if that's the case, the hospital will sometimes make exceptions to the visitation policy.
8) Follow the rules without carping about them. Whether it's wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, leaving at a certain time, or not roaming the halls or loitering in the lobby, do what the hospital asks.
9) Be kind and polite. Hospital staff - doctors, nurses, aides, custodians - are all under enormous pressure. They don't make the rules. Be patient and show your appreciation for all they do.
10) If you can't visit - whether it's because you've been exposed to COVID or the hospital has limited or no visitation - find other ways to keep in touch with your loved one and support the primary visitor. You can help with grocery shopping and meal prep for the primary visitor, or offer to take care of things at the patient's house, like pet sitting or watering the plants.
Send cheerful text messages to the patient if they have the technology, or some cards and balloons if they don't.
Finally, be sure to take care of yourself if you are the primary visitor and spending your days advocating for a loved one. Eat regular meals, get enough sleep and try to get some activity, like going for walks. Most hospitals have chaplains of various religious denominations. Take advantage of that service to help you maintain your equilibrium and resilience.
I'm often asked, "Will things ever go back to normal?" Of course, I'm not a fortuneteller, but it's not hard to see that COVID will change hospital practices for months or years to come. It's our responsibility as family members and advocates to know and observe the rules so we can be there for our hospitalized loved ones.
• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.