By: David Davidson
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented hospitals and health care facilities with challenges that go beyond providing comprehensive care to patients suffering from the virus. One of the most common challenges is how to handle patient visitors. Denying or limiting visitors could be seen as a violation of patient rights, and denying access to a visit by clergy could rise to the level of religious discrimination. After receiving a number of complaints in this regard, the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR) recently provided some technical assistance to two hospitals that faced this issue.
In the first case, a COVID-positive patient in a Maryland hospital was separated from her newborn son. Shaken by the separation, the patient requested that a priest be permitted to visit the baby, so he could baptize the child. But the hospital had instituted a ban on all hospital visitation in response to the pandemic, so the request was denied.
In the second case, the families of two intensive care patients at a Virginia hospital requested that priests be allowed to visit the patients in order to administer religious sacraments. One of the patients was COVID-positive and in an end-of-life situation. The other patient was not COVID-positive (nor suspected to be) and was not in an end-of-life situation. However, the hospital had designated its entire Intensive Care Unit to be a “COVID unit,” so the requests were denied.
Complaints were filed with the OCR in all three cases, and the claims were quickly resolved with both hospitals. The resolutions resulted in revisions to each hospital’s policies, so that religious clergy of a patient’s choosing would continue to have access to the patient, so long as reasonable precautions were followed. OCR’s goal in reaching these resolutions was to “balance patient needs for compassionate spiritual support and the hospital’s practical need to protect staff, patients and visitors from infection.”
The key takeaway from both these resolutions is that while patients are indeed entitled to spiritual care during an admission, healthcare facilities can still implement reasonable conditions that govern that right. These can include requirements that (i) the visit not disrupt patient care; (ii) the clergy must agree to follow all hospital infection prevention practices such as hand washing and social distancing; and (iii) the clergy must wear personal protective equipment at all times. The Virginia hospital also required all visiting clergy to complete the hospital’s infection control training and sign an acknowledgement of the risks associated with visiting a patient who may be COVID-positive.
Each of these complaints were resolved within a relatively short time of their being filed. For that, as well as for the balanced results achieved, OCR is to be commended. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought innumerable new challenges to healthcare facilities and providers, but hopefully with this ongoing guidance, at least one concern over religious rights has been significantly clarified.