Hospitals in New York state will have to develop protocols for communicating with patients’ families during the coronavirus pandemic, under new guidance issued by the Health Department on Friday, as most patients are prohibited from having supporting persons with them in the hospital.
As hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients and every person is a potential virus carrier, the state had banned most patients from having relatives or friends with them as support persons, with exceptions for pediatric patients, women giving birth, imminent end-of-life situations, and situations where a support person is essential to the care of the patient and therefore deemed “medically necessary.”
The original guidance from the state, issued March 18, said that “hospitals should attempt to provide other forms of communication to meet the needs of their patients,” but many people with hospitalized relatives complained to elected officials about inadequate communication, and not being kept up to date on the status of their loved ones.
Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein said in a statement on March 31 that he had received “dozens of frantic phone calls from family members that are desperately awaiting status updates on their loved ones.”
“While we are all looking out for each other’s safety, we cannot have thousands of family members left in limbo,” Eichenstein said. “While keeping a no-visitors policy in place, we must find a way to empower patient reps to communicate and serve as a liaison between hospitals and family members.”
On Friday, the Health Department issued new guidelines, which state, “Hospitals should develop clear protocols for communicating with family members or caregivers of any patient who do not have a support person at the bedside. This should include considerations for assisting patient and family member communication through remote methods when possible, for example, via phone or video call.”
Eichenstein applauded the new rules.
“Too much heartache was caused by past restrictive policies,” said the Assemblyman. “Now, families will have a sense of security that hospitals are required to communicate with them.”
Friday’s guidelines also update and clarify other previous rules, such as clearly including in the category of “medically necessary” supporting persons those who are supporting patients “with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, and patients with cognitive impairments including dementia.”
The new guidance also defines “imminent end-of-life situations” as “a patient who is actively dying, where death is anticipated within less than 24 hours.”
For most “medically necessary,” pediatric, and “end of life” situations, two people may be designated as official support persons, but only one may be in the hospital at a time. For women giving birth, only one person may be designated as a support person.
Support persons must be screened to ensure they do not have COVID-19 symptoms (e.g., fever, sore throat, runny nose, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, and diarrhea), wear personal protective equipment, and not leave the patient’s room except when entering and exiting the hospital.