Recently, the "Recovery Room" sign in my hospital's operating suite came down. Up went a new sign: "Post-Anesthesia Care Unit."
This is no isolated decision. Hospitals across the country are changing their four-syllable recovery rooms to nine-syllable post-anesthesia care units (PACUs for short). According to a recommendation by the American Society of Post-Anesthesia Nurses, PACU is "descriptive, professional, and indicates the highly specialized care that we administer to our patients."
I disagree. I find the phrase less descriptive, and indicative of our professional culture's obsession with pompous officialese. Rather than simplify, it confuses. And it leaves the people for whom hospitals are intended -- patients and their visitors -- to figure out for themselves the baffling phrases that hospitals use.
Simple phrases apparently do not suffice. Long gone are the days when patients stayed on the fourth floor. Instead, hospitals confront them with a bewildering array of departments, like cooperative self-care unit, cardiovascular stepdown unit, nursing complex (normal, admissions, transitional, and intensive care), and telemetry/cardiac and renal rehabilitation.
Even worse, this proliferation of never-ending names spawns equally confusing abbreviations. Whenever a department creates a phrase that is much too long to say, the phrase is then abbreviated. Thus, hospital employes converse cryptically about MICUs, SICUs, SPDs, OB/GYNs, EAPs, PPOs, DRGs, ad infinitum.
In an era when hospitals are scrambling for patients, shouldn't we try to make understanding easier?
We in the health care field should not expect lay people to conform to our professional phrases and egos. Instead, we should make the hospital a place where a medical dictionary is not a requirement for understanding the staff. Patients often have a hard enough time pronouncing their illnesses. We need to return to simple language, with terms that people can comprehend.
Take "post-anesthesia care unit." To nurses, a PACU is an integral part of the operating suite, where they monitor patients just out of surgery. It includes sophisticated equipment. Its staff is proficient and experienced in the subtleties of critical care.
But to patients and their families, a recovery room is not a post-anesthesia care unit. It is a place where they or their loved ones are taken to recover following surgery. Recovery room sounds reassuring. Post-anesthesia care unit, or PACU, might upset a family member who is unfamiliar with hospital jargon.
A hospital can be a very scary place to the first-time patient or visitor. They want to understand the hospital environment. They prefer not to have to ask questions. They like clarity. I have seen too many instances where hospital employes mention a department with a lengthy name or vague abbreviation only to be met with a blank stare or a "What is that?"
Some phrases work well. For example, intensive care unit (or ICU) accurately describes the type of care provided.
But the meaning of post-anesthesia care unit is difficult to grasp. It says little to patients about what it is or does. And when the phrase is abbreviated to PACU, my inclination is to say "Gesundheit."
This trend may not fade quickly. And it is not confined to health care. For years, lawyers have resisted legislation to use simpler language in legal proceedings. The government delights in creating new phrases, too. We no longer "raise taxes"; we "introduce revenue-enhancing measures."
But simplification must happen. When health care professionals, dedicated though they are, place professional idiosyncrasies above patients and visitors, understanding is lost.
Hospitals market their services more than ever. On radio, hardly an hour goes by that one doesn't hear advertisements for drug treatment programs, ambulatory care facilities or emergency services offered by area hospitals. But hospital managers seem to believe that the more technological a service sounds, the more the public will perceive the hospital as a modern institution capable of providing the highest quality care.
In "Megatrends," John Naisbitt discusses the concept of "high tech/high touch": whenever new technology is introduced to society, there must be a counterbalancing human response, or society rejects the technology.
In many ways, the health care industry uses this concept well. For example, childbirth is safer than ever. A woman who gives birth in a hospital benefits from advanced equipment and well-trained staff. To balance this technology, she has the option of the birthing room, which provides a relaxed, homelike atmosphere within the hospital.
But we need more of this balance, and one way to achieve this is to simplify the phrases we use to promote our technology. If we do not, we may defeat our purpose.