NOT JUST A VISITOR: Supporting someone you love in health and care facilities

Central to IMAGINE Citizens Collaborating for Health’s vision and mission is the concept of a patient- and family- or person-centred health care system. In such a system, family is broadly defined (by the patient/resident) and can include a close friend or other key support person. These family members are considered to be invaluable members of the care team, care that continues in the community after a patient is discharged.

Recognizing this, IMAGINE Citizens has been actively involved in working with our health system partners to change visiting policies that restrict family presence. We feel strongly that any health or care organization that wishes to practice patient- and family-centred care, needs to recognize families as part of the team and welcome them into health and care facilities as partners in care.

We are aware the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in substantial shifts in health care practices and policies. One of these shifts has been the introduction of blanket visitor restrictions that prevent us from supporting our loved ones in health and care facilities (e.g., hospitals, long term care). The restrictive policies were initially put in place with good intentions, but we know they bring significant risks and unintended harm to both patients and families, and create moral distress for staff.

A key learning has been that it’s important to distinguish between visitors and essential family supports, when putting ‘visiting’ restrictions in place as part of public health guidance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Key family members are not ‘just a visitor’, rather we are important members of the healthcare team and partners in care (along with the patient/resident).

COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on many failures or weak parts in the policies, structures and systems that support the health and wellbeing of people. One such area is patient- and family-centred care, something which healthcare organizations across Alberta say is important. We have learned that this concept is not firmly embedded in our healthcare system, rather the roots appear to be quite shallow.

IMAGINE Citizens conducted a survey in September 2020 to identify pandemic policy areas that people felt could benefit from more patient and citizen involvement. The second highest priority policy area identified by survey respondents was: ‘How to manage restrictions on family caregiver access to patients (in hospital) or residents (in long term care or congregate care facilities)’. IMAGINE Citizens has been actively working to ensure that there is a strong citizen presence in addressing this problem.

We are pleased to be involved as a sponsoring organization for Essential Together – a national initiative to help health and care organizations re-integrate, welcome and engage essential family members during COVID-19, and beyond. IMAGINE Citizens participated in a policy roundtable, where the policy guidelines for this initiative were co-created with patients, families and citizens. We will continue to share the progress of Essential Together, including the development of tools to support us to safely stay with our loved ones in health and care facilities. We are optimistic that this program will contribute to embedding the roots of patient- and family-centred care more deeply in our healthcare organizations.

February 2021