Legislators in Colorado have passed “never die alone” legislation — a response to overly strict prohibitions against visitors in hospitals and other healthcare settings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Jared Polis should sign this bill, which would protect patients from the double tragedy of dying in a healthcare facility while their friends and family members are forced to wait outside. And all other states should adopt similar legislation if they haven’t yet.
The Colorado bill was championed by Steve Reiter, a man whose wife, Elizabeth, died alone after spending 21 days in the hospital — with no visits from Steve, their children, or anyone else.
While hospital-visitor bans are heartbreaking, many Americans simply count them among the necessary costs of fighting COVID. But just as with other COVID-era restrictions on human interaction, we should consider not only the risks of COVID but the risks associated with our response to COVID.
Numerous studies prior to and during the pandemic have confirmed common sense: Visitation to the hospital is helpful to patients’ health. Visits from loved ones are correlated with better health outcomes and shorter hospital stays. They also provide oversight and accountability for healthcare providers. Visitors can even help with basic care for patients and ensure that information is shared appropriately across medical teams.
Without visits, patients see reduced nutrition and activity and increased pain and loneliness, depression, and aggression, among other ill effects. Family members who cannot visit the hospital naturally experience increased worry and anxiety, and care providers — rather than having a burden lifted by getting those pesky family members out of the room — report higher burdens, such as increased ethical dilemmas and increased demand for communication and social support for both patients and their families. Prohibiting visitation comes with serious consequences.
COVID was and continues to be a risk as well, but the risk has decreased: Today, everyone who works in a hospital has the opportunity to be vaccinated and boosted against COVID. Indeed, sometimes, they have no choice in this matter in order to stay employed. With three (or more!) shots against COVID and good personal protective equipment, such as a well-fitted N95 mask, the chance of infection is low, and the chance of severe disease is infinitesimally small.
Similarly, under Colorado’s bill, visitors may be required to be screened for COVID, wear PPE, visit at certain times, or even sign a waiver before being allowed to visit. Hospitals may refuse a visitor who doesn’t comply with the correct procedures, or they may prohibit or limit visitation if adequate PPE is not available. These are reasonable measures that balance the importance of visitation with the risk of communicable disease.
Hospitals, recognizing what is best for patient care, should welcome a return to a more liberal visitation policy without being forced by lawmakers. But the healthcare system sometimes fails to offer the right incentives. Because patients don’t shop for healthcare (and instead typically only wind up at one hospital over another because of their insurance coverage), they can’t put pressure on hospitals to offer a good customer experience.
Some of the changes we witnessed during COVID — such as the elimination of paper menus — turned out to save costs (and perhaps reduce waste) without significant trade-offs. But some of the changes — such as virtual schooling — outlived their appropriate time, and the costs have been enormous.
It’s time for hospitals nationwide to reopen their doors to visitors for all patients. And if they won’t do so, then states are right to take the side of patients and push the doors open for their loved ones to come in.