Are hospitals really all that hospitable?

In the last decade, more attention has been paid to making hospitals cozier and homier: flowers and champagne for new mothers, age-appropriate wall-hangings and cartoon dolls for sick kids.

Newer hospitals have consulted the hospitality industry “to make the health-care environment more inviting and less threatening.”

However, most of us do not choose a hospital; that choice is made by our physicians and limited by our rural locality.

Without question, many hospitals have been austere and some downright dingy. In contrast are the billionaire royalty flying to North America by private jets for medical care and enjoying hospital suites the equal of five-star hotels. Perhaps, trickle-down transition from “being institutional to being much more inviting and warm” is appropriate and overdue.

I’m not sure about “inviting,” but I can see the reasoning for “warm.” It’s a comfort issue. Consider emergency rooms and intensive care units – any “hospitality” there? That is a really tough question: People arrive in mental and physical pain, scared, insecure and even unable to communicate. Urgency of pain relief, treatments and procedures are foremost – “inviting” is hardly part of the vocabulary. Here is one example from an ER before design guidelines for “inviting” and “warm” existed.

On a mid-afternoon, I took a call from an ER physician at a Navajo reservation hospital somewhere west of Farmington. He was sending us a German couple, tourists who had been injured in an automobile collision and were stable enough for transfer. I asked our staff members to locate and summon a German translator.

Upon the couple’s arrival, the translator proved of no use; husband and wife were deaf and unable to speak – mute. However, the husband, an engineer, could read and write English. Seeking the circumstances of the accident and the potential for injury, I scribbled questions on a notepad.

“What did you hit?” brought a quizzical look. I said: “truck, car, horse, cow?” He circled “car” and on we went.

After examination and a few X-rays came discharge from the ER and disposition. They had no transportation and no place to go. The staff members seamlessly arranged for a motel, someone to pick them up and delivery of a replacement rental car. They asked to pay the ER charges.

Another phone call came from the reservation doctor sending another German couple to our ER, this time English speaking. The first couple, glancing at a map, had swerved from behind a stopped truck and hit the oncoming second couple. The wife had some broken ribs and was admitted. Moreover, we had the routine down, arranged the motel pickup and replacement rental, Hertz – the first was Avis. They, too, wanted to pay. Again, I asked the staff to low-ball the charges. “Warm”? They were our guests.

Paul Gibson, Mercy Regional Medical Center’s emergency department director, informs me that things are better. The hospital subscribes to a Language Line phone translation service, via three-way speaker phone, for more than 175 languages. Stranded? The ER has bus tokens and taxi vouchers. Payment? Only foreigners ask. Medical billing is now so complex, it is very difficult to render charges promptly. Go figure.

www.alanfraserhouston.com. Dr. Fraser Houston is a retired emergency room physician who worked at area hospitals after moving to Southwest Colorado from New Hampshire in 1990.

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