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Families call for review of Victorian CHO's hospital visitation rules, say patients are suffering

Margaret Booker with her husband. (Photo: Nerelle Crothers)

Victorian families are calling for a review of the state's strict hospital visitation rules, revealing their heartbreak at being separated from sick or injured loved ones.

When Nerelle Crothers' 78-year-old mother was hit by a car almost two weeks ago, she was taken to the Bendigo emergency department with several broken bones, including her pelvis and arm.

But when Margaret Booker was moved from Emergency to another ward, she was not allowed any visitors.

Ms Crothers told ABC Central Victoria her mother cannot move or feed herself, and can barely use her phone to contact family members.

"She's only got that one arm she can use … so she finds it hard to even hold the phone," Ms Crothers said.

"She can't text, so you have to get the nurses to assist her, to talk to her."

Not being able to see her mother has been distressing for Ms Crothers.

She believes the experience has been even worse for Ms Booker, who has been isolated from her family while suffering severe pain.

"Dad says she's very depressed today," Ms Crothers said.

Families say their loved ones need their in-person support while sick or injured. (ABC News: Natasha Johnson)

Entry restrictions

Bendigo Health's entry requirements, in line with the Chief Health Officer's requirements, include several visitation restrictions and state that all visitors must have had at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Alternatively, they can show evidence of a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) on the day of their visit.

These restrictions are due to change on April 12.

Ms Booker's family members were vaccinated but did not meet other requirements to visit the hospital ward, such as providing end-of-life support or "essential" care.

After Ms Crothers spoke to ABC Central Victoria's breakfast radio program last week, Bendigo Health granted Ms Booker's husband permission to visit her in hospital once a day, for an hour.

In that time, he feeds her and helps her use her phone to contact family.

"She can't feed herself so Dad can be there, he can spend time with her," Ms Crothers said.

"He can also help her stay in contact with every other family member on the phone.

'She's really struggling'

But other families are still feeling the pain of seeing loved ones left alone in hospitals.

Shona O'Brien's 45-year-old sister, Bianca Rogers, is a mother of three and grandmother of six.

On February 19, she was taken by Ambulance Victoria to the emergency department at Bendigo Health, where they discovered she had a major pulmonary embolism and pneumonia, leading to a diagnosis of kidney cancer.

Bianca Rogers had to tell her partner she had cancer via FaceTime.  (Picture: Shona O'Brien)

While Ms O'Brien was allowed to visit her sister in the emergency department, she was not allowed to see her once Ms Rogers had been transferred to a ward.

"She was no longer allowed to have a support person with her as needed," Ms O'Brien said.

"She's really struggling, as you can imagine.

"I just think the hospital needs to take so much more into consideration about people's mental health and how this is going to affect people for a long time to come, including their staff."

Rules 'distressing' for staff

Nerelle Crothers has called for a better system or referral system to be put in place, so people are not left without assistance from family members.

She said the fight for someone to be allowed to see her mum was an added strain during a stressful time.

Shona O'Brien filed a complaint to Bendigo Health's public affairs unit and was told her complaint had been escalated.

However, she heard nothing further until a prominent local man advocated for her family, and she received an apology from the Director of Clinical Services via phone call. 

Bendigo Health has received many complaints about the visitation policy. (ABC Central Victoria: Tyrone Dalton)

But Ms O'Brien is calling for more continuity across the hospital board and more consideration of patients' – and families' – mental health and needs.

Bendigo Health's chief nursing and midwifery officer, Carol-Anne Lever, said the hospital works with families under the Chief Health Officer's rules to work around what is considered important for a patient's wellbeing.  

Hospital visitor restrictions lead to heartbreak and helplessness

"The orders for visitation are set under the Public Health Act. The current orders came into play on the 12th of January and will be reviewed on the 12th of April. 

"The orders are quite prescriptive; we can have two visitors a day, once a day, for one hour in some areas but we do provide some exemptions."

Ms Lever said the visitation policy was the biggest cause of complaints throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and Bendigo Health had worked with a number of families to explore visitation options.

A Department of Health spokesperson said the current visitor restrictions were always under review based on emerging evidence and the epidemiological situation.

"Hospitals are high-risk settings and restrictions remain in place to protect the safety of patients, employees and also visitors.

"We are working with hospitals to ensure any additional restrictions are eased as soon as it's safe to do so."

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