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Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Behind paper-thin curtains

Public hospitals cannot be expected to offer private rooms for patients; most people accept that the price would be prohibitive, and the medical care itself is the more important thing.

But we can be pleased that the vast hospital wards of yesteryear with a military matron on patrol seem to have disappeared and have been replaced by rooms with four beds and the like.

Of course, they are still not very private, and this becomes especially evident at visiting time.

You’re not going to be able to escape learning about a stranger’s Aunty Flo and her ongoing battle with her neighbours, for example. You don’t WANT to know the grisly details, but they are there in surround sound.

Detail about Uncle Gavin’s goitre was not on your playlist either, but you’re stuck with it. All you can do is turn over, pull your blanket up over your head and let it run. You must certainly not interject with your own views on the matter.

So lack of privacy is an integral part of a public health system. No real complaints about that.

But what happens when your doctor is visiting you? Some of the details in his diagnosis and discussion you would rather keep to yourself. Fair enough.

I’d like you to think back a bit, if you’re old enough, to TV’s ‘Get Smart’.

When Agent Smart and The Chief needed to discuss top-secret business that nobody else could hear, they used the cone of silence. This was a perspex-looking dome which they lowered over themselves and within which they carried on their private conversation.

To the outside viewer, there were two men inside whose lips were moving, but only lip-readers could have picked up the gist of what they were saying. [“Do we really need to keep spying? Doesn’t Facebook do that for us these days?”]

Back to the four-bed hospital room where the doctor is visiting one of the four, and it’s time for the big reveal with diagnosis and gritty data, some of it quite personal. As soon as the doctor draws close to the bed, he will automatically close the curtain surround — the hospital’s cone of silence.

It’s clearly a well-practised move. He does it without thinking because he wants his message to be delivered to the patient only and not to all and sundry within earshot, and he seems to believe the shower curtain of silence will do the trick. Even he is going to find it difficult to
verbalise some of his findings.

Does the hospital’s cone of silence work? Not at all. It’s about as soundproof as a limp moist towelette. Like it or not, the other three in the room, plus the tea lady and visitors walking past down the corridor, are all going to be able to hear the grisly details. The privacy curtains serve no acoustic/sonic function.

Naturally, I’ve been working on a possible solution.

If I say my initial idea stays with the Maxwell Smart theme, astute readers will have predicted what I am about to say. But don’t ask me yet as I need a little more time to finalise details.

Impatient reader [interrupting]: Is it a shoe phone?

Me: I told you not to ask me that.

Impatient reader: Sorry about that, Chief.

But, yes, the reader is right. I’m thinking shoe phones. Of course, there has to be an important add-on. The users would each need to wear a hood of silence otherwise, it would be no different from what currently exists.

So shoe phones and hoods of silence it is. It’s our way forward to privacy.

Sorry, must dash now – my prototype shoe phone is ringing.

Wyn Drabble is a teacher of English, a writer, a musician and public speaker.

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