Design (of the Patient Experience) is a Weapon

Posted on May 4, 2010


Let’s not tiptoe around this one with politically correct language:  design is a weapon. Many things can be copied by our competition, but design innovation is not one. Why? Because true innovation is born from a progressive organizational culture and really smart people, two things which are unique to businesses lucky to posses both. Imitated, yes but not copied.

Design is the core of most value propositions because at the end of the day, people can get their ankle x-ray done anywhere or have their building designed and built by any architect and contractor. But we vote with our dollars based on the intangibles that stratify the competition, like service, like design.

For the hospital, this means putting the patient first, in every single way possible. Seemingly every hospital has this in their mission statement, but who executes? For most hospitals, this probably means “medical care”, but the patient experience is so, so much more. It is the senses, the trust, the way family and visitors feel, the demeanor of every single employee, and of course the physical environment—from the room temperature to the floor pattern.

My wife was in the hospital recently and I had a chance to judge yet another hospital. Overall we had a good experience. I think the hospital gave a lot of thought to how we arrived, where we parked, how we approached and moved throughout the facility—both as visitor and patient. I give kudos to the food planning and prep; it was well executed. The care and demeanor of the doctors was also great. My wife felt comfortable and in good hands.  In fact, at one point my wife received care so frequently, I actually retreated to the empty visitors lounge for some peace, quiet and wireless internet (a nice touch) to get some work done.

Less innovative design is platonic; it is discussed by administrators and elitist designers as “this is the way it should be”, with the belief that good design is idealized, universal and is a spiritual product. More innovative design is democratic; it is debated among many who explore multiple answers, with the belief that good design has variability (based on diversity), cultural sensitivity and that there is no “best way”.

A common business tenet is that you cannot ask your customer what they want because they do not know.  This is particularly true with innovative technologies. However, in the medical environment, I believe the most innovative hospitals and design professionals are the most empathetic. Deep down, we know what a pleasant experience is, we just need to design it.

We know when the infusion pump gets low, it beeps—and keeps beeping—until a nurse or tech refills it. When this does not happen within a few minutes, patients and visitors get annoyed. Part of this is lack of responsiveness, part of this is poor equipment design, part of this is poor process or design of the space. Is there a way to send a silent signal wirelessly to the nurse?  Is there a way to design the room for better observation? Is there a way housekeeping can be proactive and alert a tech ahead of time while doing her own rounds?

What most hospitals and design teams do not realize is that design and healthcare are both outcome-based endeavors:  regardless of how little or much time, money, staff or resources were expended, none of that matters if the outcome is a failure.  The gray area is that the clinical outcome may be a success, but the patient experience could be a failure. Likewise, a project may have come in on budget, within schedule and at the expected quality level, but if the patient experience is poor, the patient may not return a second time. 

And in a couple of months or a couple of years, when I have that choice to make, it may not be the doting care I remember, but the infusion pump—or the wireless internet.