How you can address clutter in your facility

By Stephen W. Earnhart, MS
CEO, Earnhart & Associates
Austin, TX

The average surgical corridor looks like the ending scenes in a disaster movie where all the actors claim, "We can rebuild it — and make it better than it was."

Look around your facility, and you will see what I’m talking about: a mess. Over the months and years, our eyes have filtered it out. We minimize the optical clutter, but it still is there.

I have been conducting a number of patient interviews during the past few months, and one question I ask is, "What was your first impression of the facility?" Almost 90% say, "It seemed cluttered." Clutter also can lead to thoughts that we are disorganized and unprofessional. Then you have the rash of news articles about surgery on the wrong body part, and it reinforces some of the subliminal panic our patients face in that long ride down the hall to their operating room.

Not only do patients complain about the clutter, but surgeons do as well. I spend more time with surgeons now that I’m in the business world then I ever did when I was in the operating room. Believe me — they notice and comment on this issue. The ones who are building a new facility always say that they want the corridors "clean and uncluttered" in the new center. That statement is significant because that means that they are willing to pay more money out of their pockets to store this stuff.

Remarkably, there is a cure for most of the hospitals and surgery centers out there. Start here:

1. Begin with the surgical corridor. It is the one that receives the most attention. Label each piece of equipment or box with the name of the department that it belongs to such as anesthesia, lab, X-ray, postanesthesia care unit, OR, etc.

2. Notify those departments that it needs to be removed in the next three days. If (and when) you get hassled, you might want to add the follow, "per order of the Fire Department." It usually works.

3. After everyone else has removed their junk, focus on yours. Most of the remaining stuff deals with linen, partially empty boxes, monitors of various applications, and similar items. Move whatever you can into the equipment storage room (if you are lucky enough to have one). Just shove the stuff around; you always can find more room in there. Patients and physicians rarely go in there, and they never complain about it anyway.

4. What is left can be consolidated into fewer boxes. Go to a hardware store or even better, a store that specializes in containers and organizational materials for homes and offices. Buy brightly colored boxes and storage bags. For some reason, anything sitting around in a brightly colored box appears to belong there and is not considered junk or clutter.

5. When all else fails, take another linen cart (with cover) and put all the remaining stuff in there. Use a piece of paper to label what is behind the curtain.

6. For the emergency items you might need, have a file cabinet or shelving unit (painted red) in the corridor with those items. It might sound silly, especially in light of all the other minutia we face each day, to address clutter. But like a blister on your heel, you know it is there and have to deal with it.

(Editor’s note: Earnhart & Associates is an ambulatory surgery consulting firm specializing in all aspects of surgery center development and management. Do you have additional questions? Contact Earnhart at 3112 Windsor Road, Suite A-242, Austin, TX 78703. E-mail: Web: