The battle over infection prevention has been waged on most surfaces, materials, and equipment in the patient room. The quest to curb hospital-borne infections has made patient rooms easier to clean and created processes that remove materials that may be home to bacteria.

One area that's often overlooked in this war on infection prevention is the privacy curtain. 

The purpose of a privacy curtain is to provide privacy to the patient during personal procedures and personal care. However, privacy needs to be balanced with infection prevention.

The problem with privacy curtains, in general, is that they're not cleanable (by wiping down) surfaces. Therefore, they can be a common source of contamination, since the mechanism of operating the curtain requires the caregiver to touch it by hand.

Healthcare designers are challenged to create spaces that offer discretion and cleanliness. Consider that knocking on the door is used most commonly as a notice that someone is coming into the room, not as a request for permission to enter.

  • How will staff and visitors know not to enter?
  • Will the patient hear the knock on the door?
  • Will staff hear the patient respond to the knock?
  • Does the hospital have another mechanism to communicate “do not enter,” such as signage that is consistently used at hotels?

These are all important questions to consider and reinforce the need for a curtain to offer patient privacy. If a privacy curtain is used, there are a number of design elements that need to be considered:

Make sure the curtain covers the smallest area possible to allow for cover between the door and the patient

  • The fabric should have antimicrobial qualities.
  • The area that will likely be touched should have a plastic (cleanable) guard that can be part of daily room cleanings.
  • The curtain’s track should allow the curtain to be secured behind the door and out of the caregiver’s path of travel and touch when it's not in use.
  • Consider placing a protective sleeve or cover on the curtain so if it's not used, the protective cover is not “broken.”
  • Consider changing the curtain between patients, although this is cost prohibitive in areas such as the emergency room.

Here are some trends in new healthcare facilities:

  • The design industry is seeing a trend in new construction that eliminates the curtain from patient rooms. Currently, there isn’t enough post-occupancy evidence to determine if this leads to privacy concerns.
  • Most new hospitals don't have a curtain in the family zone. Families are requested to leave the room when the patient has personal care or procedures.
  • Privacy curtains have no affect on sound attenuation, but do provide a light barrier at night for families wanting to rest.

Terry Thurston is the director of healthcare operational planning at BSA LifeStructures and brings more than 30 years of healthcare experience as an expert in operational, occupancy, and transition planning. Her experience as a chief nursing and patient safety officer allows her to bring a multi-faceted approach to designing safe and efficient healthcare facilities.