Many Ontario hospitals extending visiting hours to 24/7

A growing number of hospitals in Ontario are allowing visitors around the clock, citing the benefit to patients of having support from family members in the hospital room.

Advocates say unlimited visiting hours improves outcomes for patients, but some staff have concerns

Across Ontario, 28 hospital organizations have either switched to 24/7 visiting hours or are considering the move, according to the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement.

A growing number of hospitals in Ontario are allowing visitors around the clock, citing the benefit to patients of having as much support as possible from family members in the hospital room.

According to a report being released Tuesday by the Canadian Foundation For Healthcare Improvement, 28 hospital organizations in the province have either switched to 24/7 visiting hours or are considering the move.

Hospitals that currently have unlimited visiting hours include the Humber River Hospital in Toronto, the Ottawa Hospital, Hamilton Health Sciences, and Kingston General Hospital, one of the first in Canada to introduce the policy. Two hospitals in the Kitchener area introduced unlimited visiting hours last summer.  

The William Osler Health System — which includes Brampton Civic and Etobicoke General hospitals — began a pilot project with extended visiting hours two years ago and is moving toward unlimited visiting hours in the coming six months.

"We know that patients want their families to be engaged," said Mary Jane McNally, chief patient experience officer at William Osler. "We know that when there is really good communication with patient, family and care providers that there are better outcomes."  

Visiting hours are unlimited at Hamilton Health Sciences hospitals. 'Family and friends can visit patients at any time as decided by the patient and based on their care needs,' says its website. (Cory Ruf/CBC)

Having a 24/7 policy on visiting hours does not mean it's a free-for-all. Generally, patients have the final word on who gets to visit them, visitors in shared rooms must respect the privacy of the other patients and staff can send visitors out of the room if it's deemed medically necessary. Some hospitals limit overnight visitors to one. 

The William Osler system is ensuring protocols are in place "so there aren't large numbers of family members wandering around at two in the morning," said McNally.   

North York General Hospital in Toronto is considering 24/7 visiting hours, but has yet to commit to the move.

"We recently surveyed patients, family members, staff and physicians for their perspectives on family presence at the bedside," said Karyn Popovich, the hospital's vice president for clinical programs, quality and risk. "We will be sharing the results of this survey in the coming weeks."

Earlier this year, Saskatchewan became the first province to extend hospital visiting hours around the clock. (Chanss Lagaden, CBC)

North York General's website indicates that improved communication and emotional support for patients are among the benefits, while common concerns include the quality of rest for patients, space limitations for visitors in the rooms, and potential interference with staff at work.

Ross Sutherland, a retired registered nurse who worked on wards with unlimited visiting hours, as well as some that had restrictions in Kingston and Toronto, supports the trend, even though it means nurses have to spend extra time answering questions.

"I think it actually improves care when people who care about the patients are informed of what's going on," Sutherland said in an interview Tuesday.

However, he said hospitals mustn't rely on the presence of family members to compensate for understaffing.

The William Osler Health System, which includes Etobicoke General Hospital, is moving toward 24/7 visiting hours in the coming months.

"There's really good evidence that shows the benefits are experienced by everyone, " said Stephen Samis, vice president of programs for the Canadian Foundation For Healthcare Improvement (CFHI), a non-profit group that promotes reforms to improve health care outcomes and make the system more efficient. 

"There are fewer re-admissions to hospital after, there are fewer mistakes made when the patient is in the hospital, and it's actually far better for the transitions when the patient is going from the hospital back to home,"  Samis said in a phone interview Monday. 

Three provinces — Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island — have committed to "family presence" policies, including 24/7 visiting hours, according to CFHI.

Ontario does not have a blanket policy on visiting hours, but the government is aware of the trend. "We are looking at the full spectrum of supports we provide to patients," said a spokesperson for Health Minister Eric Hoskins in an email.

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