Greetings. If you've ever stayed in a hospital or visited someone there, you know that patients (a.k.a., "customers") stay in one of two different types of rooms. The first type is a "private" room, given this name because it is the temporary home for one patient. In other words, it's a private place for you to recuperate in the privacy of the appropriate healthcare staff and supported by visits from family, friends, colleagues, and clergy who bring cards, flowers, plants, chocolate, balloons, good cheer and well-wishes during assigned visiting hours.
The other type of accommodation is called a "semi-private" room, given this name to convey the notion that you are almost alone and almost have privacy. Privacy created by a remarkably simple curtain that is somehow infused with the magic of privacy. But, in fact, this room is the temporary home for two patients–you and a total stranger who is also there to recuperate along with appropriate healthcare staff and whatever entourage accompanies them in their time of need. And while it is possible that this person could end up becoming one of your best friends, it's not likely. And it's even more unlikely that you will ever receive even semi-privacy in a semi-private room. Because this marvel of modern marketing is simply that. A marketing concept that obscures the reality that you are sharing a small room with a total stranger and a relatively modest curtain. And a sick stranger to boot. Complete with coughs, sneezes, moans, groans, screams of pain and delight, and all manner of good and bad habits that are only magnified by their condition and confinement. It's something you'd never do in a million years if the hospital and your insurance company didn't force you to. And something your parents always cautioned you against as a child.
If I was only slightly amused by the idea before, I'm quite concerned now after my father's recent back surgery. It was an operation that seems to have gone very well assuming he survives his time in a semi-private room. Sure we asked for a private room. After all, dad is 86 and an extremely light sleeper. But they were all taken. So we got with the program and actually had a delightful first roommate. He had also had surgery and despite his pain was kind and thoughtful, had an extremely positive outlook, and was fun and interesting to talk with. Plus, he was quiet at night and had no disease of the contagious variety. One could actually imagine becoming his friend under different circumstances. But he left the next morning, creating the opportunity to test the real meaning of semi-private…
The new roommate had lots of issues, apparently returning to the hospital on a somewhat regular basis. In addition to physical ailments that were still being diagnosed, he also suffered from some form of dementia that made him quite anxious and even hostile toward the medical professionals treating him. This resulted in frequent and loud outbursts as they attempted to check his vital signs, take xrays (in the room), draw blood, bandage his sores, and eventually put in a central line. Outbursts that included an amazing grasp of nearly all the x-rated words found in the English language, along with equally compelling threats to anyone who came near him. This led to an impromptu meeting with his family members, doctors, nurses, and techs that at one point brought eight additional people to his half of the 12 foot by 18 foot semi-private room. And given the ever-shrinking quarters, even required a wonderful nurse to climb over Dad and onto his bed in order to connect an oxygen tube for his roommate. I should note that the room was also filled with two hospital beds, two reclining chairs, four visitor chairs, two tray tables, two night stands, two TVs, two regular waste baskets, and a gigantic red bin for hazardous waste. Talk about an environment that could challenge the leading feng shui masters! But the real excitement occurred when his primary doctor called for an infectious disease specialist and we began to imagine the limits of a simple curtain and a bottle of hand sanitizer. Not that I'm a heartless guy, but this did not seem like the optimal environment for a quick and healthy recovery from back surgery.
Of course, every situation presents an opportunity for innovation. So during my hours of visiting Dad I started to imagine semi-private hotel rooms–perfect for our troubled economy–and giant misting bottles of body sanitizer that could protect someone from head to toe in a hospital filled with germs. I also thought about ways to reinvent the semi-private room as a necessary part of someone's return to health. By changing it's basic design and it's "component" parts. By doing a better job of matching roommates. By thinking about the real "moments of truth" in the experience of being a patient and how to make each one of them more meaningful and health-building. By providing more knowledge and guidance. By using music, images, and scents to strengthen the environment for healing. By improving the privacy they afford. By enhancing the collaboration of healthcare professionals. By incorporating a sense of humor and optimism. And that was just the beginning of a world of possibilities.
We win in healthcare, business, and life when we avoid words that obscure the real truth. Maybe the real genius of a semi-private room is its total lack of privacy, and the challenge it offers to innovate in our efforts to restore health and well-being to those we have the privilege to serve.
Cheers and stay well!