Hospitals are prescribing privacy

By Derek Kravitz
Sunday, October 10, 2010

Private hospital rooms were once considered the realm of the rich, the powerful and the well-connected. The more common experience involved a cramped space with only a flimsy curtain separating two or more patients.

Now patients are saying goodbye to their hospital roommates and enjoying golden solitude.

The next-generation room being designed at many of Washington's nearly two dozen acute-care community hospitals will be single-patient spaces - outfitted with flat-screen televisions with updated patient information, big bay windows to bring in natural light, soothing earth tones and a couch where family members and friends can rest.

Consumer demand for private hospital rooms has spurred hospital renovation and construction projects across the region in the past decade, while research outlining the health benefits of privacy and noise reduction has gained notice. A Washington Post analysis of 23 existing or planned hospitals in the Washington region found that nearly all of the facilities have already converted to all private rooms or are in the process of doing so.

The renovation projects are not drastically increasing the number of hospital beds in Washington. Rather, hospitals are shifting their patients to new, larger rooms as they update many older medical buildings that were built after Medicare was introduced in the mid-1960s. Hospitals say the old rooms simply cannot accommodate the glut of new technologies and equipment. And as hospitals have gone "private," their competitors have worked to keep up.

All told, the cost of Washington's ongoing hospital construction and renovation projects total at least $2.1 billion, according to the Post analysis.

"Hospitals that have built new facilities in the past four or five years have built all private rooms," said Patrick Walters, senior vice president of strategic planning and system development at Inova Health System, Northern Virginia's largest hospital group. "So while we are partially all-private rooms, we are not way ahead, beating up on our competition."

Inova is embarking on the largest expansion and renovation in its almost 50-year history. At its main Fairfax campus, Inova's flagship facility, built in 1961, an $850 million project includes a new general hospital tower and women's hospital. With 833 beds, Inova Fairfax is the largest hospital in Northern Virginia and its only Level 1 trauma unit, which means it can treat any type of injury, no matter how serious.

"The public is really savvy now, and patients are starting to realize they can, and deserve, to be treated well," Walters said. "Almost everyone that comes in says, 'If you have [a private room], we'd appreciate it.' "

'I like my privacy'

Nadine Steward, 80, of Springfield spent 10 days at Inova Fairfax's Heart and Vascular Institute after complaining of shortness of breath during a doctor's visit for her ongoing cancer treatment. Housed in a six-year-old facility near the main hospital tower, the Heart and Vascular Institute is similar to what the new general-care patient rooms will look like: windows looking out on manicured gardens, a couch for family and friends, a private bathroom, and dominion over the television.

"My family comes and visits; it's quiet. I watched the Redskins game on Sunday," said Steward, who left the hospital Wednesday for at-home hospice care. "I like my privacy."

Inova's new 11-story, $161 million south patient tower will include 174 all-private intensive care and surgical patient rooms. Construction began in late September and is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2012.

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