In 1921, U.S. President Warren G. Harding declared the first National Hospital Day. He picked May 12, Florence Nightingale’s birthday, to honor the famed nurse who set initial standards for hospital quality during the Crimean War of 1854.
President Harding declared the special day as an occasion to open hospitals across the United States and Canada to allow staff to educate visitors about medical examination and treatment and to distribute health care literature and information about nursing schools.
This publicity campaign was conceived by Matthew O. Foley, managing editor of the Chicago-based trade publication Hospital Management, in the wake of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.
The devastating epidemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including more than 675,000 Americans. Foley sought to rebuild trust in the city’s hospitals as well as to draw attention to broader crises facing health care. A May 1921 Canadian Medical Association Journal editorial outlined those problems:
“The time is past when support for the care of the sick poor can be obtained through funds raised from private philanthropy.
“Modern hospital methods are expensive beyond anything formerly conceived of . . . [while at the same time] the increase of poverty and unemployment and the influx of a new and inexperienced immigrant population as yet unestablished in homes create a greatly increased number of indigent sick demanding care.”
War influenced day's focus
National Hospital Day 1945 addressed a different set of challenges – a country still reeling from the Great Depression and still at war with Japan; victory in Europe was declared May 8, 1945.
San Francisco Mayor Roger Lapham proclaimed National Hospital Day as a date to honor volunteer and professional workers for what the mayor called "the splendid record for health in San Francisco during our fourth year of war".
Among those health care providers honored were those serving workers and their families in the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, Calif. The shipyard magazine Fore ‘n’ Aft published this editorial:
“Hospital Day has never been one of this nation's major anniversaries, but – indisputably – health is, and will remain, one of this nation's major problems for a long time to come.
“For most citizens as well, medical and hospital bills have been one of the major problems in their family budget. That neither of these problems need loom so large and insoluble has been proved at the Richmond shipyards.
“Richmond workers can count themselves among the select – and unfortunately, small – group of American citizens who needn't worry about running up doctors' bills, yet they have by their side every protection modern medicine can offer.
“To the service that makes this possible – the Permanente Health Plan – we dedicate this issue of Fore 'n' Aft.”
Hospital Day becomes Hospital Week
In 1953, National Hospital Day was expanded to National Hospital Week to give hospitals more time for public education about medical care.
Currently sponsored by the American Hospital Association, this year’s National Hospital Week is Sunday, May 11, through Saturday, May 17.
The week is a time to celebrate hospitals and the men and women who, day in and day out, support the health of their communities through compassionate care, constant innovation and unwavering dedication.
Writing at a time when nursing was generally a woman's profession, a Canadian editorial writer touted the occupation:
“[On] National Hospital Day efforts will be made to bring the value of a modern hospital before every member of the community, and also to impress young women standing on life's threshold with idealism still dominant, and aspiring to a vocation as well as seeking a means of livelihood with the view that nursing is a profession and not a business, and that in its honour sacrifices must be rendered as well as privileges won.”