You’ll like sharing your hospital room. Really.

American hospitals have spent millions of dollars scrapping old-fashioned patient wards and double rooms in favor of private hospital rooms for everyone.

But maybe this strategy is entirely wrongheaded, suggests Dr. Richard Gunderman, a professor at Indiana University, who last week lamented the decline of shared hospital rooms and the resulting loss of human contact between patients.

Yes, patients might resent having their sleep interrupted by a roommate who snores or watches TV all the time, Dr. Gunderman writes. But deep down, don’t most of them long to connect with others who are going through the same thing?

Hospitals these days “increasingly resemble high-security prisons” designed to keep patients from interacting with each other, he writes.

In our haste to control infections, we isolate them. In our zeal to preserve confidentiality,  we prevent patients from getting to know each other. They sometimes begin to feel as though they are being kept like specimens in hermetically sealed containers.

What patients really want, he concludes, is to connect with other people who know what it’s like from the perspective of the hospital bed. And even though they think having a room to themselves is preferable to giving up their privacy in a group ward, “perhaps… they don’t know what they are missing out on,” writes Dr. Gunderman.

In many cultures, hospital patients often share a room with one or perhaps many people and can mingle freely with them. But the notion of privacy is deep-seated in American culture. Contemporary Americans value the ability to live their lives without intrusion or outside interference, and this spills over into how we manage our shared social space. How we feel about privacy can especially be put to the test when we’re sick, vulnerable and hospitalized. Do we want company or would we rather be left alone?

Many Americans (Canadians too) frankly prefer the latter, as evidenced by the reaction to Dr. Gunderman’s essay.

Here’s the response from Heart Sisters blogger Carolyn Thomas, who says she could “scarcely believe what I’m reading here.”

“As a heart patient who has become a frequent flyer of the health care system, I can tell you flat out that I don’t ever go into hospital to make friends with other sick people. Ever!” she wrote. “While the disruption of ‘a roommate’s television viewing or snoring’ may seem minor to you, it’s a very big deal if you’re the sick person being held hostage amidst this kind of noise.”

“This article had to be penned by an extrovert,” someone else wrote. “I cannot imagine anything worse than being in a forced social situation with some stranger while both of us were sick enough to be in the hospital… This whole premise almost sent me to the ER.”

There are obvious inconveniences to sharing a hospital room. Maybe you’re stuck with a roommate whose family and friends crowd the room at all hours of the day and night when you’re trying to rest. You’re forced to share a bathroom. You might overhear conversations that aren’t meant for your ears. There’s always a chance of unwanted proximity to vomiting, bleeding and other distressing physical functions – or of experiencing the humiliation of being the one to vomit in front of a roomful of strangers.

The serious question here is whether private rooms result in better outcomes for patients or whether they’re merely nice to have.

Although the evidence is somewhat mixed, the bulk of research has found that single-bed hospital rooms are linked to better infection control, less stress for patients, fewer sleep interruptions, especially in intensive care units, and improved recovery times resulting in a shorter hospital stay. Case studies also have found private rooms more conducive to patient education, medical consultations and the ability of family to be with the patient.

Does it also count for something that when patients are asked for their opinion, the vast majority say they prefer a private hospital room?

6 thoughts on “You’ll like sharing your hospital room. Really.

  1. I can empathize with the extrovert who wrote the story, being an extrovert myself, but perhaps it would be better to allow patients to get together in a waiting room or other shared area so that they at least have the opportunity to be alone. Or just give them internet access and a pad with skype on it so they can see their friends without (necessarily) their friends seeing them.

    Don’t forget the guilt that comes along with sharing a room. I’d feel pretty bad if I kept another patient awake because of my snoring, sleeptalking or generalized restlessness.

  2. I like the company of others, but not while I’m in the hospital. I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss medical conditions while others are around, whether it’s about me or the other person. Also don’t want to be bothered by someone else (especially snoring (!), but also her noisy visitors or any number of things) or BE a bother to someone if I want to watch TV or play cards with friends or family. Sharing a room makes me uncomfortable for so many reasons.

  3. Personally, I would want to be in a room alone. Maybe that is just me, being someone who likes their private time. I am also quite the night owl, so I wouldn’t want to worry about keeping someone else up when they need their proper rest!

    Also, part of that could be the fact that I have a vomit phobia. If I happened to get a room mate that was vomiting, you bet I’d be out of my bed, and dragging that IV pole behind me down the hall; I wouldn’t even care if my bum was showing out the back of my gown.

  4. This guy is delusional. I’m going to the hospital tomorrow to have my gallbladder removed, and I found out that the room are semi-private, so if I am required to stay overnight, I will be stuck with a roommate. I am actually stressing out more about this than I am about the actual surgery, as I seem to be a magnet to lonely old ladies who want someone to chat with. With my kind of luck, that is exactly who I will be stuck with. Well, either that or someone who has a zillion noisy kids/grandkids, and they all come to visit AT THE SAME TIME. The last thing I want is some nosy, uncontrolled little kid crawling under the curtain between the beds, or just yanking it aside, and getting into my business, demanding to play with my iPad, etc. I am also not crazy about strangers knowing my personal medical business. I would really rather not have anyone else in the room except my husband when private stuff is being discussed.

    At least this hospital has WiFi, so hopefully I will be able to stream movies and TV shows on my iPad, using headphones (partly to keep other people’s noise from bothering me too much, and partly so that other people do not have to hear my noise). If there is one shared TV in the room, I have pretty much accepted that I will have no control over it, so I’ll bring my own entertainment.

    Here’s hoping it all goes well, and they let me go home on the same day, so I won’t have to deal with any of that stress at all.

    • I had emergency GB surgery a few months ago and trust me, you will be glad you brought along your own entertainment. Here’s hoping you have a successful surgery and speedy recovery.

  5. This person is totally crazy. I’m considering switching doctors because I cannot go three days without sleep. I’m in the hospital and I’m working from my hospital room to stay up with work. I don’t have anyone to cover me when I’m out. Anyway, I went 40 hours without sleep and I’m starting another sleepless night right now with a roommate who’s continuously moaning in pain. It took me a minute to complete a sentence after 40 sleepless hours.

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