Consult-Liaison Medicine Observations Policy Systems

Ever Seen a Hospital Orientation?

Perhaps more important than the actual “rules” of hospitals is how these “rules” are communicated to patients.

Medical students spend two years training in a hospital before they work as physicians. It often took me over a week on a specific service (e.g., surgery) to understand its routines and rhythms. While it is true that patients and hospital staff have different roles in the hospital, how can we expect patients to understand their roles upon admission?

Those of you who work in hospitals might be thinking, “But patients don’t have roles in the hospital. They’re there to receive care.” Of course patients have roles in the hospital. When patients deviate from the roles you think they should play, that’s when you start calling them “difficult” and then consult psychiatry.

In general, hospitals have not honed their skills in orienting patients to their roles in the hospital. Rarely does anyone tell you what to do or what to expect when you go to the hospital. This orientation may happen on an individual level (thank you, nurses!), but it is an uncommon institutional practice.

Consider all the places you visit that are not “yours”, though you might be labelled the “customer”. How about fast food joints? They often have signs that tell you where you order your food and where to pick it up. The cash registers tell you where you pay. Shallow corrals tell you where to line up. Those are small details, but they help define your role and shape your behaviors while you are in the fast food restaurant.

Hospitals would do well to adopt the practices of airlines. Have you been on an airplane? Remember how you paid attention to the safety announcements before your first flight? The flight attendants tell you how your seatbelt works, point out the exits to you, tell you about the flotation device that is disguised as a seat cushion, and how to work the oxygen masks that will appear if the cabin pressure drops. It only takes a few minutes. And, in case you want to review the information on your own, they include all of that information “on the card in the seat back pocket in front of you“. Have you ever looked at that card? There are few words on it: It aims to be universally understood.

Why not include a small booklet—comic book?—in each hospital room that provides similar orientation?

Consider hotels. Not only do hotels have written material in each room about hotel operations, but some of them also have a television channel dedicated to hotel features and operations!

Most hospital rooms have a television bolted to the ceiling or to the wall. Why not develop a “hospital channel” that offers similar information about hospital operations and features?

A skim through Google shows me that some children’s hospitals (in Cincinnati and Chapel Hill) have created YouTube videos that offer hospital orientation to kids. Why do we not do the same for adults?

When I have worked in hospitals, I often felt like there wasn’t enough time for me to do everything I needed and wanted to do. When I sat in my mother’s hospital room, I was surprised with how much waiting we did. That time could be used to teach patients and their family members what to expect during the hospitalization, like when the doctors typically round (and what “rounding” even means) or what to do when the IV starts to beep.

If you work as a hospital CEO or at a similar paygrade, I encourage you to work on easy-to-understand materials that orient patients to their roles in the hospital. Realize that patients want their hospital stays to go smoothly. They want to know what to expect. The vast majority of patients don’t want to “bother” hospital staff. They want to help hospital staff so that the medical staff can help them. Patients don’t want to stay at the hospital longer than they have to.

Understand that hospital orientation is like building rapport on an organizational level. Data shows that effective communication between physicians and patients leads to better patient health outcomes. If the outcomes are better on an individual level, why couldn’t outcomes improve on an institutional level?