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Two or more generations ago, most patients in Western hospitals were housed and treated in large, long rooms known as wards. There were very few private rooms, used only under special circumstances. Wards were separated by sex and grew to be segregated by the treating physician's medical specialty, such as surgery or obstetrics. An inpatient ward required fewer staff members to care for an equivalent patient population housed in private or double rooms. The general use of an inpatient ward has been abandoned in the interests of improved infection control, even as the term survives to denote a separate patient population.
Modern Western hospitals often place a separate inpatient ward on each floor, or half-floor, of their facilities. Inpatient ward examples include general medical wards, surgical wards, orthopedics, obstetrics and pediatrics. Depending upon their sizes and philosophies, some hospitals subdivide wards even further by offering telemetry — ambulatory cardiac monitoring — floors, oncology wards and even women’s' health wards covering breast, reproductive issues and reproductive organ surgery. Psychiatric floors are not only restricted to visitors and residents, they are also segregated by whether they are treating adult or adolescent-aged patients. Intensive care units (ICUs), coronary care units (CCUs), and neurological intensive care units (NICUs) are all a highly specialized type of inpatient ward that is physically set apart from the general hospital traffic and restricted to healthcare staff except for limited visiting times.
Different but related types of inpatient ward are often located on the same floor, adjacent to each other, or are otherwise in close proximity to each other. This closeness may be aimed to serve the convenience of patients and family — such as the baby nursery and the new mother obstetrics wards — or for the efficiency of patient evaluation, such as the radiology department often being located near the emergency department. Some facilities have established "unit pharmacies," or a dedicated pharmacy and staff for each specialized inpatient ward to speed up the delivery of newly prescribed medications to the patients. Another example of increasing inpatient ward efficiency is the recent placement of physical therapy suites within rehabilitation wards or orthopedic units.
Some facilities have begun to combine outpatient therapy of discharged patients with patients remaining in the inpatient ward. This type of combination therapy is generally utilized with patient populations experiencing a long and difficult rehabilitation process, such as neurological injuries or substance abuse issues. Returning discharged patients to their former wards and co-patients is thought to provide encouragement and recovery incentives to both patient populations.
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