In the first half of the twentieth century, polio created a heavy demand for orthopedic services for children. In response, the fraternal organization Shriners International placed a $2 yearly assessment on all of its members and opened a special hospital for children in Shreveport, Louisiana. Any child needing orthopedic care and lacking the wherewithal to pay for it would be admitted and treated with no charge. The organization continued opening free hospitals across the country until there were eventually 22 separate facilities. Orthopedic surgical techniques, therapies, and prosthetics developed in Shriners hospitals became standards around the world.
When vaccines and antibiotics pushed polio into sharp decline in the 1960s, the Shriners Hospitals began to focus on new specialties. Seeing that there were no burn facilities in the U.S. for children, four hospitals were dedicated to treating childhood burn victims. These are still the only hospitals focused wholly on pediatric burn care, and since their creation the survival rate for child burn victims has doubled and rehabilitation improvements have made much more normal lives possible. The Shriners also specialized in spinal-cord injuries, cleft palate correction, and orthopedic research (which is funded at about $40 million per year).
In 2011, in response to soaring health costs, the Shriners Hospitals that had always been 100 percent free began to bill insurance companies and to charge some families deductibles. All patients lacking means to pay, however, continue to be served free. Since their founding, nearly 1 million children have received care at Shriners Hospitals.
- Shriner Hospital locations, shrinershospitalsforchildren.org/locations