Privacy in hospitals and healthcare settings is a matter of basic human dignity. When we are sick or in pain, we naturally do not want our vulnerabilities on display for all to see. Of course, patient privacy also fulfils an important healthcare function in terms of infection control; by creating individual bays or cubicles for patients, we also create a barrier that germs find it more difficult to cross.
But it’s interesting to note that privacy also plays a more nuanced role in the recovery of hospital inpatients, with numerous studies finding that the physical hospital environment has a significant impact on health outcomes that runs much deeper than simple hygiene considerations. Research shows that recovery can be slower, and mortality rates higher, when healthcare settings do not meet requirements on the most basic design features including space, natural light, views and privacy.
Participants in a 2016 study described a healing space as “one that evokes feelings of serenity, calm, and relaxation, and can contribute to an environment that facilitates the innate healing process—a process of repair, recovery, and return to wholeness in mind, body, and spirit.” Having sufficient space and not feeling crowded or closed in were the most commonly mentioned physical attributes of a space that promotes healing. Other physical attributes included privacy, natural light, quiet, and cleanliness. (MacAllister, 2016)
Why is patient privacy important in hospitals?
On a purely practical level, patient privacy is about dignity. When we take autonomous individuals and put them in an inpatient setting with other people – whether that is other patients, medical professionals, or both – it’s important to preserve as much of their autonomy and dignity as possible. They should be able to carry out basic functions such as eating, sleeping, getting changed and using the bathroom, in private. Medical observations, treatments and tests should not be conducted in view of other patients, visitors or staff.
In addition to visual privacy, verbal or auditory privacy is also important. Patients should be able to discuss their symptoms and prognosis with medical teams privately, to preserve confidentiality and avoid embarrassment or discrimination.
How does lack of privacy impact on health?
We’ve already mentioned that patient privacy screens and curtains are an important part of any hospital’s infection control strategy. These can take many forms, from non-permeable materials such as glass and plastic that offer complete isolation, to simple fabric or disposable curtains. The efficacy of these materials varies widely but even a basic fabric barrier or curtain – when properly maintained – can reduce the risk of hospital acquired infections, which cost our healthcare systems millions each year.
As well as physical impact, lack of privacy can also have psychological effects. Ultimately, a lack of privacy leads to stress – and stress is a major barrier to recovery. Hospital inpatients can be stressed by a wide range of privacy related factors – inability to sleep or rest due to noise from other patients and staff, concern that they will disturb others, embarrassment caused by other patients witnessing their symptoms or distress, and generally feeling unable to fully relax. Disrupted sleep patterns in particular are shown to have significant effects on the health of patients recovering from illness or surgery, including reduced pain tolerance, increased immunosuppression, delayed healing, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and low mood. When hospitals are able to effectively address these issues, patients generally experience better health outcomes.
Patient privacy vs isolation
There are several other things to consider when planning for patient privacy. Given the different requirements of different healthcare settings, one solution doesn’t fit all – and different solutions may be appropriate even within the same facility. For instance, in the ED, patient privacy is often a higher priority due to the unpredictable nature of these departments – from trauma cases to tropical diseases, staff never know what it coming through the door next, so it’s vital that cubicles, partitions and curtains provide the best possible level of infection control and dignity for people at their most vulnerable. The same is true for ICUs, where there is no place for patient privacy systems that could compromise a patient whose life already hangs in the balance. In both settings, it’s becoming more and more common to see the use of solid-surface partitions to create rooms within rooms, including innovative folding screens that can be easily disinfected between patients and folded away when not in use, such as our CleanScreen product.
While these types of privacy screen offer gold-standard performance on infection control (and sustainability) they may not always be the right choice for other inpatient wards, where it has been shown that interaction with others can have a positive impact on recovery times and mental wellbeing. In the same way that a lack of privacy can cause stress, complete isolation can also adversely affect patients – in particular the elderly and the very young. In these cases, it’s helpful to have privacy systems that are less clinical in appearance and allow for people to interact with others while they are in hospital, particularly on long stays. In order to stay on top of hygiene, the use of systems like Belroc’s InstaSwap is ideal, making it simple and cost-effective to launder curtains regularly.
To discuss your facility’s patient privacy requirements, contact Dan Lawrenson – firstname.lastname@example.org.