Saturday, April 17, 2010

Presidential Memorandum: Allow Hospital Patients Equal Rights, Regardless of Sexual Orientation, Religion, National Origin

It is entitled "Presidential Memorandum - Hospital Visitation: Memorandum for the Secretary of Health and Human Services".  The subject is "Respecting the Rights of Hospital Patients to Receive Visitors and to Designate Surrogate Decision Makers for Medical Emergencies." By its own language, it does not change the law or create any rights.  However, like almost everything any United States President does this century, it is sure to evoke various and passionate responses.

To summarize the changes raised by the Memorandum, it directs the Department of Health and Human Services (which directly or indirectly governs hospitals in the U.S.A.) to initiate changes in laws and administrative rules which allow all patients to designate visitors who have the right to visit, regardless of the legal relationship between the patient and visitor.  In other words, the "family only" restrictions will likely be removed in the next year or so. North Carolina recently changed its Patients' Bill of Rights law to allow the same.

The Memorandum also discusses how the laws and rules regarding "family-only" patient visitation may impact the role of those who are healthcare surrogates, health care proxies, or who have durable power of attorney. The Civil Lawyer Online provides services in this area. President Obama went out of his way to emphasize to the Secretary of Health and Human Services that rules and laws regarding healthcare surrogates and the like must be consistent and in harmony with new rules and laws regarding increased patient visitation rights.


Commentary by The Civil Lawyer Online:

On the one hand, the Memorandum seems to state the obvious:  hospital patients should have equal rights. One thing the Memorandum is sure to accomplish is to educate many in the United States (and around the world) as to the fact that, currently, hospital patients do not all have equal rights. For example, currently in some states, one's long time significant other or "life partner" may not be considered "family" entitled to full visitation rights - regardless of whether the couple is heterosexual or homosexual. Whoever you are, can you imagine that the people who mean the most to you in the world might not be allowed to see you, because - by random chance - you don't share the same gene pool?

As an attorney who has a great deal of experience with hospitals, doctors, nurses, patients, etc., this is clearly a positive development from a practical standpoint. Without getting into the politics and emotions of it, allowing patients to be comforted by those they care about - and those who care about them -  benefits all of us.  How, you ask?

This country has a nursing shortage and an "age-heavy" population. Our healthcare system is stretched thin. Our healthcare providers are overworked. In most situations, hospital-based healthcare providers are quite happy to have visitors with their patients.  Visitors often serve as another set of eyes and ears on the patient, which benefits the patient and the healthcare providers (especially nurses). Nurses can't be everywhere, all the time.  Almost no patients get direct care and monitoring (other than electronic) every minute of the day and night. If a caring visitor is with the patient, the result is usually a benefit to the patient and a benefit to the hospital staff.

We must also think of communication. Many hospital patients are not in a position to communicate effectively, if at all, whether due to age and infirmity, trauma, language barrier, or any other of a number of issues. We've all come across situations in which we couldn't understand someone - but a close friend or family member could. Communication is key to many things, often including patient treatment.  Perhaps you, as a patient, end up in a situation where someone close to you - but not a relative - is allowed increased involvement in your medical care and communicates information which helps you or saves your life, such as information about medications you take or allergic reactions you have.

I was glad to see that the Presidential Memorandum referenced some of these practical benefits. If we - and our elected officials - can keep our senses about us, perhaps this development can be seen as the positive progress it is, and not as another issue to divide our country.