Middlemore Hospital is scrapping the longstanding rule of "visiting hours" restrictions for the close family of patients.
The traditional visiting hours of 2pm to 8pm used in most areas will now apply only to people who are not close family or whanau. And patients can nominate a "partner/partners in care" who can stay with them for support and to assist in their care and in treatment decisions.
Dr Mary Seddon, the clinical director of quality improvement, said close family were no longer considered visitors.
"We are saying close family are important for patients' recovery and we want to encourage families to be able to come and support their loved one whenever they need."
Middlemore regularly received complaints from patients and family members about being denied access to their loved ones under the traditional visiting policy.
But she said Middlemore's Kidz First children's wards had long understood the benefits of having families present.
The policy change - found in studies overseas to be linked to improvements on a range of measures, such as greater patient satisfaction and reduced length-of-stay, hospital-acquired infections and costs - is catching on in New Zealand. Auckland City Hospital is about to try out something similar to Middlemore.
Dr Seddon said the Bay of Plenty District Health Board was moving in the same direction too.
Waitemata DHB said it extended its medical and surgical wards' visiting hours to 8am-8pm last year; previously they started at 2pm.
Staff tried to accommodate requests for after-hours visits and overnight stays.
Under Middlemore's new policy, patients are asked to identify close family/whanau to staff.
The hospital says the number of family members at a patient's bedside may need to be limited, especially overnight. Where possible, comfortable chairs and blankets would be provided for those staying overnight.
"Drinking water and basic facilities to make hot drinks are available. Food is not usually provided; however it may be possible to provide breakfast in some cases."
The hospital has a mix of single rooms and others which have two or four beds.
When asked about the risk of large and possibly noisy families annoying other patients in multi-bed rooms, Dr Seddon said, "In the two wards that have already opened their doors, mostly it's [handled with] a quiet conversation with family.
"We've tried to publicise our expectations that if we are doing this, there are responsibilities on the people coming in as well."
Company brings sense of normality
Connie Grice, who is recovering from heart surgery, with her husband John. Picture / Sarah Ivey
Connie Grice likes Middlemore Hospital's new open-hours visiting policy for close family.
"It's great," said the 75-year-old, whose husband, John, spends half of each day there with her.
"Whatever I ask for, he can bring it up for me. I know he's going to be here in the mornings and spend all the morning and part of the early afternoon with me. We're carrying on our lives as normal."
The couple live at a retirement village in Manurewa.
Mrs Grice has been in hospital for a fortnight. She has had a pacemaker fitted to deal with an abnormal heart rhythm and had suffered a bad reaction to medication.
Mr Grice said the new policy was marvellous.
"I can come as early as I like in the morning and stay all day if I wanted to."