Protecting Patients

Healthcare for the aging is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States, especially in the area of nursing homes. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are currently 1.9 million beds in 18,000 nursing facilities in the United States, so there’s no lack of work for electrical contractors who have the low-voltage know-how and foresight to pursue this niche business.

Patient room call systems

The patient room call system is one of the most important systems found in nursing homes. There are two basic types: emergency call and nurse call.

An emergency call system allows patients to signal for help using audio tone and lamp indicators in master directories located at nurse stations. When activated, a corridor lamp illuminates outside the patient’s room, and nursing personnel can readily find the room quickly.

Nurse call systems provide tone and lamp activation and two-way voice. This gives attending nurses and aides the ability to communicate directly with a patient before they visit their room.

Two types of call units are used in patient rooms: bedside and bathroom. Bedside stations consist of a momentary pushbutton switch on a handheld unit, which is attached to a cord usually terminated in a ¼-inch phono plug. A clip on the cord is used to secure the button where the patient can readily find it.

A typical bathroom station consists of a single-gang wall plate with a call switch in the middle. In most cases, a pull string is secured to the call switch lever, allowing patients to pull it when help is needed. This is used in shower rooms and public bathrooms throughout the facility.

In most systems, the attending nurse or aide must cancel the call from the patient’s bedside or bathroom station instead of at the directory.

Traditional systems require multiple-conductor cable usage between nurse call directories, corridor lamps and patient room stations. The type of cable will depend on the system’s make and model.

Most emergency-call systems on the market use four-conductor cable. One conductor serves as a common, negative return. One supplies a steady, positive voltage for bedside activation. A third supplies a pulsing, positive for bathroom station activation. The fourth conductor carries either a steady or pulsing voltage to the directory and corridor lamps.

In most cases, constant and steady lamp power signifies bed activation, and a flashing display signifies bathroom activity. In older systems, two lamps may be used to differentiate between the two—one white and the other red.

Electronic access control

There are two additional ways to enhance patient safety and security in a nursing home. One involves the use of a patient wandering system, and the other involves the use of access control. Both systems are used to ensure the safety and security of special-needs patients.

Whereas most commercial access-control applications involve the regulation of outside ingress, in a typical nursing home, it’s used to control egress.

Although there are stringent fire codes related to egress, it often is necessary in a nursing facility to restrict egress where it concerns patients with special needs, such as Alzheimer’s disease. In special wards, access control often is used to provide egress only for authorized personnel and members of the general public. The authority having jurisdiction must approve special egress arrangements with regard to compliance with local building and fire codes.

Patient wandering systems

According to the National Institute on Aging, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health: “Dementia is a brain disorder that seriously affects a person’s ability to carry out daily activities. The most common form of dementia among older people is Alzheimer’s disease, which initially involves the parts of the brain that control thought, memory and language.”

Patient wandering systems are used at perimeter exits in many nursing homes that care for patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Locking arrangements ensure patient safety by not allowing egress to patients identified as having special needs.

Perimeter exits are typically left unlocked to allow ready egress. When a special-needs patient approaches an exit, however, the doors lock and an alarm sounds. For that to happen, a small transponder in a wristband or ankle bracelet is placed on the patient or wheelchair, and a radio receiver at the door “listens” for a radio signal emitted by the transponder.

There are other low-voltage systems that ECs can readily sell and service in nursing homes, such as closed-circuit television, cable television and door intercoms.

COLOMBO is a 32-year veteran in the security and life safety markets. He currently is director with and a nationally recognized trade journalist located in East Canton, Ohio.

About the Author

Allan B. Colombo

Freelance Writer
Allan Colombo is a 35-year veteran in the security and life safety markets. He is director with and a nationally recognized trade journalist in East Canton, Ohio. Reach him at

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