Clearly an Emergency

SCHA Helps Hospitals Implement New Plain Language Emergency Codes

Code Pink. Code Blue. Code Silver.


Depending on which hospital system you’re in, those codes could mean different things. Staff members themselves may not immediately be able to interpret the announcements over hospital intercoms without referencing their badge cards. 


If you’ve been in a South Carolina hospital over the last few years, you might not have noticed that these rainbow-colored announcements have been gradually disappearing. In their place, clearly stated alerts like “Facility Alert—Hazardous Material Spill—Third Floor” have become far more common. That’s because, while some alerts like “Code Blue” or “Code Red” have been in existence for many years, there is no uniform standard as to what they mean. In addition to potentially creating confusion between or even within a healthcare system, this also creates an unnecessary communication barrier between patients and staff. 


This is why there’s been a gradual shift toward trading out these old alerts for plain language emergency codes that are easily understood and communicated. SCHA has been helping South Carolina hospitals proactively adopt these new codes, with the goal of having all SC hospitals in the process of implementing uniform plain language codes by the end of the year.


Spearheading this effort has been Morgan Bowne, who completed her Masters in Health Administration in part by designing a toolkit to assist in implementing these new codes.


“It came up last summer at the SCHA Leadership Summit as part of a general discussion of tasks [the members] wanted us to take on in the coming year,” Bowne recalled. “One of the members brought it up and asked if we could do the research.”


So Bowne dove in, taking a close look at the 25 states that had already begun work on the same issue. Together with Jimmy Walker, SCHA’s Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Workforce, Bowne helped form a workgroup that methodically put together the plain language proposal with a sensible rollout that would work on the frontlines of hospitals.


“I looked at five other states’ [toolkits] that were similar to South Carolina in some way, just to get a good mix,” Bowne explained. “I brought each toolkit to the workgroup and we went through and selected the parts that we wanted to include and added in our own guidance.”


And while Bowne did a lot of the grunt work, she credits the range of hospital representatives in the workgroup – which included CEOs, COOs, CNOS, Emergency Managers, Safety Managers, Risk Managers, and more – as well as her two co-chairs, Palmetto Health Baptist Parkridge COO Sarah Kirby and Jeff Straub, Corporate Emergency Manager & Safety Officer at Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.


“We really tried to get input from every department that would ultimately be impacted by this, who would have to go back to their staff and say ‘we’re going to get rid of the old alert system and try something completely new,’” said Bowne. “We wanted to get them together to help pick out all of the pieces that would make the process as smooth as possible.”


The rollout thus far has gone quite well, with most hospitals receiving the toolkit positively. Bowne credits this to a larger turn toward better patient engagement and transparency in healthcare systems as a whole. 


“It’s just part of that larger move toward being more transparent,” she said. “I think a lot of it in the past was that nobody wanted to announce emergencies to the public because they are often unpleasant, but people have become very accepting of the fact that it’s just something we need to do.”