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Hospital Websites Mislead Patients on Right to Choose Visitors, Report Says

By Amy Zimmer | August 1, 2013 1:55pm
 A survey found that one in five large New York hospitals have outdated language about visitation policies on their websites.
A survey found that one in five large New York hospitals have outdated language about visitation policies on their websites.
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MANHATTAN — Although hospital patients are entitled to choose who can visit them, nearly one in five large New York state hospitals has websites listing outdated “immediate family only” rules for certain intensive care units, a report released Thursday found.

Two Queens institutions — Elmhurst Hospital and Jamaica Medical Center — were among the state’s nine most misleading websites, according to the new report — issued by New Yorkers for Patient and Family Empowerment, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) and Lambda Legal.

The nine worst offenders in the state had websites explicitly stating that visitation to certain wards was limited to family, when it legally is not.

Three Manhattan hospitals — Beth Israel, St. Luke’s-Roosevelt and the Hospital for Special Surgery — were among those whose websites that “strongly” implied a restriction on non-family visitors. This is also illegal, according to the report.

The embattled Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill was among those with contradictory language, the survey of 99 large acute care hospitals (those with at least 200 beds) in New York state reported.

Rules regarding non-family visits affect certain populations more specifically — the elderly and LGBT — according to Hayley Gorenberg, of Lambda Legal, a firm that represented a woman who was denied the right to visit her same-sex partner of 18 years in 2009. The partner, who was hospitalized in Florida due to an aneurism while on vacation, later died.

"LGBT people," Gorenberg said, “unfortunately are too often rejected by their own family and too have to build what we call ‘families of choice' [and] then if you have elderly LBGT folks, they are doubly affected.”

Friends, neighbors and other community members — rather than biological or legal family members — are often their caretakers, the report’s authors explained, emphasizing the importance of having a trusted person by a patient’s bedside to help ask questions, oversee medications and help prevent errors.

Sometimes, it’s even more helpful to have someone without the “baggage” of a family member, they said.

“When you go into a hospital, especially when you’re very sick, it’s a very disorienting experience,” said Suzanne Mattei of New Yorkers for Patient and Family Empowerment. “You really need the support of someone trusted.”

Even if a hospital is complying with the rules, despite what the website says, the report's authors said that patients may be discouraged to invite non-family, after reading policies online.

Overall, however, many hospitals had improved their communications from last year, when a similar survey found 30 percent of the websites had outdated language. This year the survey found 17 percent with outdated language.

Several of the hospitals singled out in the report said they were in full compliance with the rules.

The Hospital for Special Surgery, for instance, updated its site five months ago clearly stating that it “supports visitation as an opportunity for our hospitalized patients to stay close to their families and friends," a spokeswoman for HSS pointed out.

Beth Israel and St. Luke's-Roosevelt, which are part of Continuum hospitals, received "leadership status" from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest LGBT advocacy group, in large part for their visitation policies, a spokesman said.

"We will certainly evaluate the visitation language on our websites to ensure that it is reflective of our broad policies and practice, and will make any changes as necessary," the spokesman added.    

The city's Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs Elmhurst Hospital, has long had an open visitation policy that is communicated to patients upon admission and is included in patient guides, a spokeswoman said. 
"We are immediately updating Elmhurst Hospital's website and reviewing all HHC hospital sites to ensure that the visitation policy is stated clearly and accurately," she said.