The existence of policies, practices and perceptions regarding children as visitors to public hospitals in uMgungundlovu, KwaZulu-Natal Province
Background. Current policies and practices regarding child visitors in hospitals in uMgungundlovu, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa, are unknown. Existing literature focuses on provision for child visitors in specialised units in well-resourced countries.
Objective. To identify policies, describe current practices and determine the perceptions of healthcare workers to child visitors.
Methods. Interviews were conducted with 7 nursing managers regarding the existence and content of a hospital visitors’ policy, 12 operational managers (OMs) to describe ward practices regarding child visitors, and 12 professional nurses and 11 doctors to determine their attitudes towards children as visitors in all four general state hospitals in uMgungundlovu between October 2013 and July 2015.
Results. Five out of seven nursing managers were aware of a visitors’ policy in their hospital. These policies allowed children to visit family or parents in adult wards, but only 2 would allow children to visit a family member and only 1 would allow visits to a friend in the children’s wards. According to the nursing managers, policy was that the visitor must be over 5 years of age to visit in an adult ward while 2 out of 3 nursing managers allowed only children over 12 years of age to visit in children’s wards. Visits must occur during prescribed visiting times and the visitor must be accompanied by an adult. In practice, 7 out of 12 OMs allow child visitors in their wards. Only 2 out of 7 OMs allow unrestricted visitation by children and only to non-infectious patients in children’s wards – this is subject to variable age restrictions in adult wards and an age limit of 12 years in children’s wards. In all wards, visits by children are restricted to prescribed visiting times and conditional on an adult escort. Three out of seven OMs allow 2 visitors only, although most (5 out of 7) allow visits of unlimited duration. Staff who favoured child visitors were more likely to be younger, male and employed as health professionals for <5 years. More doctors than nurses believed that children should be allowed to visit family and/or friends in hospital. Justifications for not allowing children to visit centred on infection risks and the emotional trauma of visiting a sick loved one. The child, patient and health professional were seen to benefit socially from child visitors, although there are positive and negative emotional consequences for the patient and the child.
Conclusion. Hospitals do make provisions for visitors, but most exclude young children, particularly those who are most vulnerable to the negative consequences of separation from a parent or family member. While policies do exist to guide child visitation in uMgungundlovu, such policies are restrictive, inconsistent and do not necessarily reflect day-to-day practices.