Relaxing and even removing restrictions on hospital visiting hours may help patients recover by lessening anxiety and feelings of isolation, a group of physicians say in a recent study.

For the eight months between March and October 2012, Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey implemented a 24-hour “open visitation” policy. There are still some restrictions: generally only two visitors are permitted at a time, and in many departments -- intensive care, pediatrics -- 24/7 visitation is restricted to parents, close family members or significant others.

The hospital's physicians wrote about the aftereffects of the policy in a paper published in the Journal for Healthcare Quality. Over the eight-month study period, 14,444 people visited the medical center during the “after-hours” period between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Despite this influx of nighttime visitors, there was no increase in the number of complaints from patients or visitors, and there was also no increase in the number of security disturbances. There was, however, an increase in patient satisfaction scores after the policy was implemented.

“Our experience suggests that implementation of open visitation at acute care and long-term care institutions can be accomplished with little disruption, is well utilized by visitors, improves the patient and family experience, and is generally accepted by hospital staff,” the authors wrote.

Medical center staffers also didn't have to field as many phone calls from visitors seeking updates on a patient's condition, and told the authors that the experience had been positive overall.

Many hospitals in Europe already have open visitation policies, the authors said, and the trend has been catching on in the U.S. for some time. But there may be some cases in which a patient’s condition makes it inadvisable to have visitors at any time of the day. Plus, having a loved one at a patient’s bedside constantly might interfere with medical staff -- this is often one of the main concerns cited by hospital workers when interviewed about the benefits of a 24-hour visiting policy. But overall, the attitude in the medical community seems to lean toward open visitation.

One 2006 study from a group of doctors at the University of Florence in Italy compared unrestricted visiting policies in intensive care units to more restrictive ones. They found that opening up visitations increased microbial contamination but didn't cause a corresponding increase in septic complications from infection. More liberal visiting hours were also associated with less reported anxiety in patients, as well as a lowered risk for cardiovascular complications.

“Supporting patients in a way that allows them to be with family and loved ones can be an important component of the healing experience and may reduce the anxiety and social isolation associated with illness,” lead author and Morristown Medical Center President David Shulkin said in a statement.

SOURCE: Shulkin et al. “Eliminating Visiting Hour Restrictions in Hospitals.” Journal for Healthcare Quality published online 23 August 2013.