Hospitals take design cues from malls, airports

Interactive maps, prominent signs help guide the way for patients, visitors

Hospitals are taking cues from shopping malls and airports—investing in interactive maps, easy-to-read signs, and prominent landmarks—to keep patients from getting lost in their labyrinth-like facilities, Laura Landro writes this week in the Wall Street Journal.

Wayfinding is what design experts call the process of simplifying routes in a facility. When applied to health care facilities, which tend to have confusing layouts because of renovations and add-ons, wayfinding can decrease patients' confusion, anxiety, and missed appointments, Landro writes.

Talking maps and wayfinding apps

Rapid City Regional Hospital in South Dakota was able to reduce lost pediatric visitors by an estimated 60% after investing about $300,000 in wayfinding initiatives. The 650,000-square-foot hospital first added colloquial language to their signs. For example, Antepartum and Postpartum services became Labor and Delivery.

The signs are modeled after an airport-like approach of "progressive disclosure," meaning patients receive information on the next step of their journey only as they need it, according to Sarah Hermsen, the hospital's head of wayfinding. Additionally, the hospital installed detailed signs at elevator banks and direction-finding digital information kiosks at the three facility entrances. 

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The Cleveland Clinic installed similar kiosks, which include a talking avatar that responds to questions. To ensure that patients do not get the lost, the kiosks also allows users to print directions, send directions to their phones, and estimate their walking times. Additionally, the hospital is developing a mobile application for directions around its main campus, Landro writes.

Some facilities are investing in landmarks that help patients locate themselves. Officials at MD Anderson Cancer Center added a large tree sculpture to help mark the way to the hospital's diagnostic center, pharmacy, chapel, and blood donation services.

Do universal signs help or hurt?

Some hospitals use universal symbols—such as a teddy bear to signal the pediatrics department—to help patients find their way, in large part because they can be understood regardless of whether a patient speaks or reads English. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded project called "Hablamos Juntos" has developed a wide variety of symbols for use at hospitals.

However, not everyone agrees that the symbols clarify the way for patients. Officials at Kaiser Permanente argue that they can add to patients' confusion, Landro writes. The health system has instead implemented a wayfinding system combining colors, letters, and images at 30 of its hospitals. The variety of triggers will make sense to patients regardless of their spoken language, says John Kouletsis, who oversees Kaiser's facility design (Landro, Journal , 2/3).

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