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?