What Is a Hospital?

A hospital is an institution built, staffed and equipped for the diagnosis of disease and the treatment, medical and surgical, of sick and injured people. It also serves as a centre for investigation and teaching. A modern large hospital usually has many wards and departments including accident and emergency, medicine, surgery and intensive care units. It may also have a range of support services such as laboratory, clinical engineering, facilities management, dining services and security departments.

Hospitals matter to people and often mark central points in their lives. They also matter to health systems as they are instrumental in care coordination and integration and provide a setting for education of doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals. Hospitals are often an essential part of a referral network for specialist care and are an important source of clinical research.

The history of hospitals has been marked by successive waves of development and expansion. Throughout the medieval period, Christian care evolved into a secular concept and by the sixteenth century European hospitals were increasingly supported by the civil authorities. In England, the church abruptly ceased to be the major supporter of hospitals following the dissolution of monasteries by Henry VIII in 1540; after this date most new hospitals were endowed directly by the crown.

A hospital can be a community facility providing primary care and acute care, as well as long-term care. It can also be a specialist hospital or a tertiary care centre. A hospital can be either public or private. Private hospitals are owned and operated by private companies or individuals, whereas public hospitals are government-owned and managed. Some large private hospitals operate in partnership with the government, which regulates their operations.

Some hospitals have a department of nursing, headed by a director of nursing or chief nurse officer, responsible for professional nursing practice, research and administration. Other departments in a hospital may include a medical director, who oversees the physicians and other healthcare providers within his or her subject area; a nursing manager, who is responsible for nurses and nursing care; and administrative departments such as a medical records department, release of information department, technical support, facilities management and clinical engineering. Some hospitals have a dedicated unit for the provision of psychiatric or mental health services. Such a hospital is typically called a psychiatric hospital or mental hospital. There are also a number of hospitals for the provision of rehabilitation and home health services. These are often referred to as community hospitals. They may be funded by the local government, charities or insurance companies. Other institutions that serve similar purposes are home health agencies, residential care facilities and skilled nursing homes. In some cases, a patient will be discharged from a hospital and transferred to another level of healthcare. For example, a patient who has been discharged from the hospital because he or she needs ongoing therapy will enter a rehabilitation facility to recover from injury or illness. These facilities are sometimes called transitional care or subacute care.