The One Thing Hospital Patients Need Most, But Aren’t Getting Enough Of

It hurts their recovery, but there’s room for improvement.

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Courtesy of Numstocker / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Numstocker / Shutterstock

When we think about the Thrive Revolution and promotion of better sleep for a healthier society, we must consider how to protect the sleep of our most vulnerable citizens. Upwards of 35 million people are admitted to hospitals every year in the United States. These people experience severe pain and anxiety and are in great need of rest. A good night’s sleep boosts the immune system and is conducive to the circulation of hormones that facilitate cellular repair, whereas disrupted sleep releases stress hormones that are destructive to our health. We know instinctively that sleep is an important ingredient for health and healing, yet our society has created hospital environments that bombard people around the clock with too much noise to get the rest that they need and deserve.

In considering this important issue of protecting hospital patients’ sleep, two moments from my past work history come to mind. The first snapshot is from when I waited tables during my 20s. When I showed up for a shift, the chef would hand me a black, plastic disc to place in my apron. This disc was numbered and had a corresponding number on a switchboard. When one of my orders was ready in the kitchen, the chef would press my number on his switchboard to call me. No matter where I was in the restaurant, the disc would quietly vibrate, and I would return to the kitchen as soon as I was able to pick up my customers’ food.

The next snapshot occurred several years later, when I worked as a hospital-based massage therapist and yoga instructor. I sat at the bedsides of patients who were experiencing severe pain and anxiety, to help them relax so that they could sleep. I remember one woman in particular who was recovering from an abdominal surgery. She initially had difficulty finding a comfortable position in the bed, and she was weakly moaning from the pain of her incision. It took several minutes, but with a combination of soft music, some coaching on breathing techniques to take her mind off the pain, and some gentle hand massage, the tension began to melt from this woman’s face, her breathing slowed down and settled, and she began to drift off to sleep. Then, suddenly, “BEEP! BEEP!! BEEP!!!” The alarm on the IV pole next to this woman’s bed sounded. She gasped, her face writhed in pain, and the relaxation session was lost. I pressed the stop button on the IV pole and attempted to help the patient return to her state of relaxation. I went out into the hallway to seek help, but there were no nurses in sight. Meanwhile, the alarm resumed its screaming every two minutes, reigniting pain and anxiety each time.

I encountered scenes similar to this one on a continual basis during my time working in the hospital. Each instance was as heart-wrenching as the next. Bearing witness to the pain, anxiety, and disrupted sleep experienced by countless vulnerable people in need of rest and restoration, I began to think about the system at play here. Why did the IV poles scream so? I’m sure that their inventors did not intend to terrorize the very people to whom these devices delivered their life-giving fluids. The alarms were developed to alert the nurse that the IV required attention. But where was the nurse when these alarms sounded off next to the ears of the patient who was trying desperately to rest? The nurse was usually out of earshot, in another patient’s room down the hall, helping someone else who was also in need.

The invention of the IV pole alarm was well intended, but it is long overdue for an upgrade. Thinking back to the remote calling system between restaurant chef and server, it is time to merge this simple technology with that of the IV pole. Rather than screaming in the ear of a patient who is powerless to make it stop, the IV device needs to deliver its message directly to the person who can make a difference: the nurse. And given that the nurse may not be available immediately, the message needs to be transmitted in such a way that it does not disturb the peace of all those nearby until the nurse is free. Why not silence all those beeping IV poles and create a system in which a light quietly flashes on a switchboard on the nurse’s computer cart, indicating which IV pole needs attending. Alerted with such a signal, the nurse will be there as soon as she or he is able to, while the patient enjoys a quiet room where optimal rest is possible.

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