PLANS to introduce more flexible hospital visiting times across Scotland have been welcomed amuid claims they are likely to improve patient recovery times.
A successful pilot scheme to open up hospital visiting is to be extended to 500 wards around the country.
Previous times were usually designated afternoon and evening sessions.
However, in an attempt to make the NHS more user-friendly, health boards across the country re-assessed their policy on visits at the beginning of last year.
Many chose to allow family visits at more convenient times throughout the day, as opposed to the single designated slot. NHS Tayside even allowed patients to name visitors they wished to have 24-hour access.
Other NHS boards, such as Fife, Forth Valley, Dumfries and Galloway, and the Golden Jubilee National Hospital, Clydebank, also took part in the scheme.
Separately, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde hospitals introduced extended visiting to its adult acute wards, from 1.30 -8.30pm.
The pilot initiative has been led by Healthcare Improvement Scotland. Its success was recently hailed by the Scottish Government and numerous health boards, while the Scottish Patient Association (SPA) welcomed any plans for an extension.
Dr Jean Turner, the SPA's executive director, said providing more flexible visiting times would have a telling effect on the health and recovery of patients.
She said: "Some family members struggle to see relatives during the official visiting window, which can then leave patients feeling isolated during care.
"It can be extremely difficult for those who travel a great distance for visits, while many are unable to attend due to their work commitments. I experienced that during my time as a GP.
"Patients usually benefit if they interact with loved ones. There is research to suggest patients will heal faster. In the least, they will be emotionally lifted by family visits.
"Admittedly, there will be inconveniences to the ward, but there is a much greater benefit to the patients' general well-being.
"I know the Scottish Government is committed to improving health care and I am glad it has listened to the concerns of patients and health boards about visiting times.
"It is certainly welcome that they are looking to extend this pilot because greater flexibility with visits can provide greater benefits to patients."
Scottish Health Secretary Alex Neil said the changes in visiting had helped patients, families and staff and had also eased parking congestion at some hospitals.
He said: "While patient care will always be the top priority for our NHS, we must ensure we do everything we can to make any hospital stay better.
"Being away from loved ones can be difficult, especially when separation is as a result of ill-health.
"That is why it is so important our NHS does more to allow family, friends and carers be more involved with the care their loved one receives in hospital.
"The improvements health boards have made represent substantial progress and it is good news for patients, their families, friends and carers when visiting is made more flexible.
"It shows positive changes are possible when we focus on what matters most to people and support our staff to develop and test new ways to ensure this happens.
"I am very encouraged to hear that staff, the true heart of our NHS, support this better approach to improving the care experience for people while in hospital.
"But I want to see boards across Scotland maintain the pace and momentum of this change so that even more wards are operating the kind of flexible approach to visiting that is so obviously benefiting patients where it has been introduced."