Tech + Design: Fostering strong partnerships for better patient care

By Tim Casey, Lindsey Evenson & Donovan Nelson, Medical Construction & Design

The July/August 2022 issue of Medical Construction & Design (MCD) magazine shines a spotlight on innovations in healthcare technology and how facilities, designers, architects, and engineers are planning for tomorrow’s technologies through design. It speaks directly to design within patient wayfinding, patient check-in, patient space, and staff space. This thoughtful article breaks down how our industry thinks through scenarios to support the newest technologies for the best patient experiences.

Technology and design go hand in hand. Especially in a healthcare setting, technology needs to be accessible and flexible to meet the broadest range of needs. By definition, those coming into a clinic or hospital are under some degree of emotional, mental, and/or physical stress. This is not the time to add complexity. Simple is best, and that’s why design is crucial to making healthcare technology successful.

Human-centered design is vital for any new technology to be effective. The following are ways technology and design are coming together for better patient care ad staff experience.

Getting to the right place

The first step can be the most important: how do you know where to go? Are you coming from a parking garage, did you pull up out front, or are you coming via skyway from another part of the hospital?

Now let’s add another layer. Beyond the multiple entries creating a potentially confusing physical and visual experience, hospitals work with a “consumer” who is either in distress for themselves or a loved one. It’s not like going to a movie and wondering how your ticket will be scanned. A parent with a screaming toddler will have little patience for reading signs. A patient coming in for chemotherapy may not be feeling well enough to decode a complicated color chart directing her to the right floor.

Patients need intuitive cues to let them know where they need to go. Design and architecture can bring clarity through consistency across each access point – finishes, signage, materiality – that link across the spaces. They can also extend that intuitive access to technology. For example, using geofencing to notify patients via mobile phone to check in once arriving onsite.

Checking in

In the future, checking in will be largely dependent on self-check-in – on a phone and tablet, versus filling out a form on a clipboard or talking to a person. Similar to check-in at an airport, the reliance on person-to-person interactions will continue to shrink. However, the range of users in a healthcare setting can be much greater than those at an airport. Design needs play a role in thinking through all the potential needs of the patient.

Right now, pilot programs are being put in place to test self-check-in. Is it as simple as a tablet sitting on a table in a waiting room? In some pilots, patients start on tablets, while a staff member is nearby for help. From a design perspective, this means thinking about each space separately, as well as together. For example, where do you sit while working on the tablet; how much personal space do you need; what else can the staff member be doing if patients don’t need help?

From an architecture standpoint, design thinks through the entire space, from what a patient sees, to what they feel, touch, and hear. For example, do they start to check in on a table that is connected to a display monitor that connects to a virtual check-in person? And how can that all fit within a visual flow and connected spaces, while providing privacy?

From signage to proximity, project teams need to ask questions and think through scenarios to support technology for the best patient experience. Design and architecture can bring clarity through consistency across each access point – finishes, signage, materiality – that link across the spaces. They can also extend that intuitive access to technology.

Patient space

Once a patient is registered, the space changes to clinic floors. How can design and technology work together in those spaces to improve care?

At a clinic in downtown Chicago, Illinois, the process is completely automated. Patients go through self-check-in to self-rooming. It’s a staff-less experience; the patient does this all on their own and are tracked by the staff using an RFID tracker.

The design firm is to ask, how can the space work to support those patients without cell phones? How can the space provide other technology alternatives, while creating a cohesive and clear design to guide the patient through the process as calmly and efficiently as possible?

The other side of design in patient spaces is when technology needs to be unobtrusive, or visible in a friendly but distant way. Real-time location sensing, which tracks patients and equipment in a hospital, is an example of that kind of technology. Patients receive a bracelet at check-in that is then tracked by sensors in the ceiling throughout the facility. That way, the family (and staff) knows where the patient is at all times. Design plays a role in making sure this isn’t a disruptive aesthetic.

Staff space

Staff space is also changing. How can design and technology work together on their behalf?

One way is by using connectivity to remove spatial isolation. Staff doesn’t need to be stuck in their clinics or tied to a workstation anymore. Thanks to mobile technology, they can access information anywhere, allowing the design to focus on bringing them together with colleagues and patients. For example, staff can work in touchdown spaces instead of offices, collaborating face to face or via technology, in spaces that support both.

That collaboration extends to patient care. Thanks to the pandemic, the prevalence of virtual care increased dramatically. Now patients and professionals can interact virtually, which increases patient satisfaction due to the added convenience. Using video conferencing, blended into the design of each space, patients can connect to the care they need, while professionals maximize their time.

Just like technology platforms think about the user experience within an application or on a website, architects think about the user experience in any space. The trend going forward for design and technology to partner even more closely for the ultimate in functionality on all levels – visual, auditory, sensory, and experientially – for the best patient experience.

Tim Casey, AIA, LEED BD+C, is a senior project manager and senior associate at Perkins&Will. Lindsey Evenson, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a senior associate at Perkins&Will. Donovan Nelson, AIA, LEED AP, is a senior project designer and associate principal at Perkins&Will. 

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Written by Anne Holden