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Hospital Wayfinding: The Plain-Sight Patient Satisfaction Barrier

By Kathy, Senior Marketing Strategist

Man in suit looking at large wall maze in confusionMany of us at Healthcare Success have visited many hospitals and health care campuses around the country; usually on business, and occasionally as a visitor or patient. More often than not, navigating a large and unfamiliar building is a confusing and unsettling experience.

If simply finding their way around is a challenge for a patient (or a visitor like myself), the mental meter that tracks “patient satisfaction” is ticking downward.

  • First-time visitors can find the enormous size of the facility daunting.
  • Patients—already concerned about their health issue—can be easily confused or disoriented.
  • Older patients, who may be in pain and/or have poor vision, require greater assistance.
  • Renovated older hospitals are a patchwork labyrinth. New add-on entrances, office corridors or specialty wings attempt to blend (not always seamlessly) with existing structures.
  • Well-intended signs use “med-speak” words, terms or jargon instead of communicative “people-speak."
  • Signage is a patchwork mix of new, old, handmade and out-of-date graphics.
  • Doctors, management and staff know their way and are oblivious to wayfinding aids

The term of art in the sign communications world is wayfinding. With thanks to the University of Michigan: “Wayfinding can be defined as spatial problem solving. It is knowing where you are in a building or an environment, knowing where your desired location is, and knowing how to get there from your present location.”

Here are a few timely tips to testing and improving the navigation experience:

Begin where the patient begins. Track travel paths from entry points including driveways, parking areas and building entrances. There may be multiple paths for getting from parking/drop-off locations to the front door.

Do an independent, third-party audit. Forget what you think you know. Anyone with even a casual familiarity with your facility will not be finding his or her way as a first-time visitor. Spend time observing and talking to visitors. Draw on information from completely fresh, inexperienced and unbiased sources.

Employ color-coded aids to navigation. Various departments or sections of the facility can be identified by unique and consistent colors in signs, wall or floor colors and/or pathway stripes on the floor for visitors to follow. Consider super-sized directional graphics on large walls, doors, and/or turning/decision points.

Be a stickler for sign consistency. Utilize an easily readable and uniform design system that follows a uniform pattern of size, shape, color, lettering and graphics. If necessary, dispose of all existing (old, discolored, broken, irregular) signs and replace with all new.

Have a rapid replacement system. Be prepared to quickly make and replace signs when broken, incorrect or with changes. Ban all handmade, “temporary” or “quick fix,” and out of date signs.

Put reference maps and directions online. Present downloadable information in the same style and appearance as the actual facility. It may be useful to include current photos or informative what-to-expect videos online.

Academic studies detect positive benefits in good wayfinding systems, including operational efficiency, stress reduction, visitor safety and accessibility.

Ease of wayfinding is a vital “first impression” for a hospital or health system that can silently erode or positively support patient satisfaction, from the parking lot or front door. Curiously, efficient and effective wayfinding signs, graphics and directional help often goes unnoticed. But when the system doesn’t work smoothly, it’s an annoying barrier to positive patient satisfaction.

For additional reading, see: 7 Strategies for Maximum-Effective Office Signs and Beyond Wizardry: Hospital Digital Signs Are an Expected Standard.

Kathy Gaughran

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