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How hospitals treat wealthy patients differently

Everyone wants to believe that if they have to go to the hospital, they’ll be treated with the same care and consideration as anyone else. However, according to this seasoned hospital doctor, that’s not the case.

Shoa L. Clarke noticed something odd when he was working in a California hospital as a medical student. One older gentleman had a red blanket covering him, even though most patients he saw had the standard white bedding. While at first he didn’t think much of it, later he overheard two doctors referring to the man as a “red blanket patient.”

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This concerned him, especially when he began treating these so called “red blanket patients” himself. This particular hospital used red blankets to distinguish wealthy patients from everyone else. Many other hospitals use similar indicators, but all share the same purpose: to separate out the rich. And while doctors, Clarke included, continue to claim they uphold the medical ethic of treating all patients equally, he notices a decided difference.

These patients are given red blankets by patient services for many reasons, but all have to do with their having an elevated status. They could be celebrities, related to hospital board members or have simply made it known they have money. Regardless of where their money comes from, they’re willing to pay big to be extra comfortable when they have to be in a hospital, and hospitals are taking notice.

Many hospitals are undergoing extensive (and expensive) makeovers so that they’ll appeal more to this elite clientele, many of whom are often willing to spend upward of $1,000 a night on a hospital room. As such, many hospitals create wings that look more like five-star hotels than medical centers that are supposed to treat all patients equally.

The point of these VIP services is to get more money for the hospital as a whole. Medical professionals call it “trickle-down health care,” because it implies a big donation from one wealthy patient will help the rest by improving the overall quality of the facility. However, all this special treatment can’t not result in an unfair dividing line between regular and red blanket patients.

And yes, it changes who gets treated first in an emergency room. The ethical standard of ERs is to treat patients in order of case severity and then by when they came in. However, one survey of 32 ERs found that most doctors will in fact treat an elite patient first as long as the other patients are “well enough.” How’s that for ethics?

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The interesting thing about this prioritizing of the elite is that it doesn’t always work in their favor. While Clarke cites several studies that show patients do better in more upscale surroundings, he also says that elite patients sometimes fare worse because the doctors coddle them more. I have some personal experience with this. A family friend who broke her hip a few weeks ago ended up spending two extra weeks in hospital because she’s terrified of pain. She’s quite well off, and no doubt her family used their monetary power to convince the doctors to wean her off pain meds at an incredibly slow rate. This means her recovery time will be that much longer, because the hospital wanted to assuage her.

So in the end, even if hospitals may benefit from this red blanket patient care long term, is it really serving anyone that much? The answer is no, but that doesn’t mean it won’t continue as long as hospitals have to deal with budget cuts and competition.

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