Best Practices for Effective Hospital Wayfinding

Wayfinding is one of the most difficult aspects of facility design. Poor wayfinding most certainly negatively affects patient experience, causing delays in patient flow as well as adverse effects on patients’ wellbeing with added stress, costing hospitals up to $220,000 per year

A person looking at a screen showing a virtual assistant and a map
Photo: Ouva Wayfinding Assistant 

Patient experience has become one of the primary focus areas for hospitals that want to achieve better financial performance. Programs introduced after the affordable care act, such as the Medicare’s Hospital Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) that rewards healthcare organizations with high quality and satisfaction scores made hospitals rethink their patient journey. According to Deloitte’s report, hospitals with "excellent" HCAHPS patient ratings between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with "low" ratings.

In order to effectively navigate patients, visitors and new staff in hospitals and improve patient outcomes, 5 fundamental design steps should be taken into consideration when designing wayfinding experience.

1. Develop a unique story and identity for each region

The most influential wayfinding experiences are the ones that tell a novel story through their design. Start by creating distinct regions with unique visual characteristics. Each distinguished area should sustain visual attributes with different colors and patterns that make them stand out on a map. The regions provide a set of cues for the visitor to recover location, making the directions more memorable. 

A wayfinding sign in a hospital with colors and floor numbers
Photo credit: Alan Kreigel

Some hospitals use themes in their designs to complement the wayfinding experience and create a compelling story. Stanford Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital used the California Coastal line as the design inspiration and created zones that adopt visual identity from indigenous to California eco-region. These animal art pieces are highlighted throughout each floor on the floors, walls and ceilings to improve patient flow in their new facility. Visitors follow pathways that are color-coded and themed with associated animals to efficiently get to their destinations. 

2. Give a sense of orientation and frame of reference

Prior to navigating visitors, the first crucial step is to provide orientation and present location within the facility. Make sure that you first address the current position and frame of reference in the building. The name of the building, floor, and departments need to be clearly displayed on the signs. Maps, if available, typically implicate the current location with a "You are here" label, although it can be challenging to discover on a large map if it’s not displayed explicitly.

Orientation information tends to be lacking from most of today’s navigation systems. Studies in cognitive wayfinding research (Denis 1997; Daniel and Denis 1998; Richter and Klippel 2005) show the influence on utilization of the prominent landmarks in determining the navigator’s orientation. If visitors know where a landmark is located in relation to their location, they can easily determine which way they are facing.

An essential property of a landmark is its visibility and unique features. It needs to be easily recognizable and noticeable from a distance with a large surrounding area, and should be permanently stationed in that space. Art pieces, large signs (e.g., emergency room), information desks, entrances are some of the typical landmarks that can be used in a hospital setting. When visitors are navigated to a destination, landmarks in directions will aid with recovering orientation along the way.

3. Provide memorable visual directions with landmarks

Directions are only helpful if they are evident and concise. Too many irrelevant verbal instructions and excess information will negatively affect the efficacy of wayfinding experience. Prefer visual cues and symbols in your directions instead of presenting too many verbal instructions. Include what is in the vicinity and what is along the pathways. Visual representations will allow the navigator to make the appropriate associations when they come across a critical decision point.

Two people walking nexdt to a wall with animals sticking out of it.
Photo credit: Seteve Babuljak

Another use of landmarks is for providing memorable directions. These significant sections help provide instant recognition of one’s location as well as their orientation. Finally, generate well-structured pathways that are easily accessible and have a clear beginning, middle, and end when viewed in each direction. Pathways affirm the progress and distance to the final destination.

4. Assist at the critical decision points

One of the definitive determinants of successful wayfinding experience is providing guidance at critical decision points. Signs need to direct people to the next checkpoint or region, or tell what locations are along the way. Precisely outlined pathways come to play in simplifying the decision-making process by consolidating all the routes.

Colored guide lines on a hospital floor.
Photo credit: Mark & Chantal

Landmarks are most fitting when used at intersections and along the pathway. They help visitors understand spatial orientation and position as well as remembering the next steps.

5. Extend the visual brand and design

Consistent branding across all platforms and outlets is vital to achieving an intuitive wayfinding experience. Implement hospital brand elements, icons, color, and themes in the wayfinding experience.

Photo of a hospital lobby with seats along windows.
Photo credit: Emily Hagopian

Make sure that all the signs and markers are easily recognizable at a glance. Universal icons allow signs to be easily noticeable and provide clarity to visitors reducing text clutter in visual design. Keeping the signs simple and on-point will eliminate the confusion and improve the time to process all the wayfinding cues.

Signs and digital wayfinding stations should be strategically placed around the facility to assist visitors further. Hang the signage at eye-level and place them throughout the intersections, decision points, and main entrances.

Effective wayfinding improves hospital quality and outcomes

According to Shoemaker et al., 2010, effective wayfinding in hospitals:

  • Reduces staff stress and fatigue,
  • Increases effectiveness in care delivery,
  • Improves patient safety,
  • Reduces patient and family stress while improving patient outcomes,
  • Improves overall healthcare quality,
  • Improves overall hospital operating performance.

There are numerous solutions from indoor positioning via beacones to touch-screen displays, and companies that design efficient wayfinding experiences. Healthcare facilities need to be mindful of the above guidelines before procuring such solutions. Solutions that are smart and capable of measuring the outcomes and performance metrics should be preferred for conceding future improvements.

Consider Ouva

In light of the recent epidemics like COVID-19 (Coronavirus) and hygiene verdict, the touch displays create high infection risks. Harmful strains of MRSA, Staphylococcus, and Streptococcus spp may hinder on devices. Annually, 2 million patients suffer from healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) in the USA, and nearly 90,000 are estimated to die. The overall direct cost of HAIs to hospitals ranges from the US $28B to $45B*. 

At Ouva, utilizing the power of machine learning and optical sensing, we provide a touch-free, voice-activated personalized assistance to guide patients at every step of the way. Ouva offers facilities actionable insights on how they can best elevate the care experience. Check out Ouva Wayfinding Solution to learn more about our smart, touch-free Wayfinding and Healthcare Signage in the age of AI.

Stone PW. Economic burden of healthcare-associated infections: an American perspective

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