Skip to Main Content
Don't have an account? Create Account
Don't have an account? Create Account

Emergence of Public Hospitals: 1860 –1930


Ward K of Armory Square Hospital, Washington, D.C.

The American hospital as we know it today emerged over the course of about 60 years, beginning around the time of the Civil War. Physician-staffed hospitals, with professional nursing and specialized departments and services, were products of urbanization and economic expansion during the Second Industrial Revolution—together with massive immigration and rapid strides in medicine itself. About 1880, asepsis (sterilizing) opened broad new horizons for surgeons. As physicians looked to the future with a new sense of hope, hospitals became symbolic of their new optimism and authority.

Each of today’s essential hospitals has a unique story, and many trace their origins to this historic period of growth. Some were established originally by states and counties, others by municipalities. Once established and staffed by trained physicians and nurses, public and not-for-profit hospitals became key components in a rapidly expanding medical culture.

By the 1920s, the hospital was a place where one could hope illness might be treated and even cured. Although some hospitals started to reduce their charitable role in favor of attracting an upper middle class clientele, public hospitals continued to operate with a commitment to treat the poor and a consequent fiscal challenge.

All hospitals before the 1920s had operated without much money. Physicians donated their time, and costs for nurses and staff tended to be low. For the first time, hospitals required significant funds, just as doctors and surgeons began getting paid and nursing and staffing were professionalized. Many urban public hospitals recast themselves appropriately as major and, sometimes, highly regarded institutions, often establishing affiliation with universities and medical schools. At the same time, they remained committed to the mission of treating all, and they became ever more vulnerable in the marketplace.

Latest News

Health Affairs Podcast Explores Financial Strain on Essential Hospitals

In a new podcast series by a physician at association member NYC Health + Hospitals, Beth Feldpush, DrPH, the association's senior vice president of policy and advocacy, unpacks the complex patchwork of payments that keep essential hospitals afloat.

learn more »

Health Affairs Commentary Argues for Essential Hospital Designation

In a Health Affairs Forefront commentary, the association's current, immediate past, and incoming board chairs say essential hospitals’ indispensable role, unique characteristics, and financial fragility argue for recognizing them as a distinct class in public health and policymaking.

learn more »

Federal Action Network

The Federal Action Network (FAN) is a community that connects essential hospital advocates with other professionals interested in federal politics and policymaking. FAN offers advocates the opportunity to enhance their engagement with the legislative and regulatory issues that matter most to their hospitals.

learn more »

Previous Next
Test Caption
Test Description goes like this