An Overview of Hospital Wayfinding Approaches

Some hospitals are so difficult to navigate that they seem to be designed by hotel casino architects. Once you've entered, you keep gambling because you can't find your way to your room. In hospitals, there is no value in having patients and family members wandering nondescript floors. The good news is that there are ways to solve this problem.


Increase in Hospital Size and Complexity

I have personally been in dozens of hospitals -- from hospital "cities" in Houston and Boston to small regional hospitals in rural North Carolina. One thing is clear. Hospitals are getting bigger. The large hospitals are building out new wings and specialty centers. And the smaller hospitals are being gobbled up by larger systems -- effectively becoming bigger. It is easy to see why patients are getting lost.


The Importance of Hospital Wayfinding

Well-run hospitals understand that wayfinding is an important aspect of the overall patient experience. The Robert Woods Johnson Foundation has done good work in this area with best practices for universal symbols and location cues. These universal symbols are particularly useful for those who don't speak English -- a growing patient segment. Wayfinding not only improves patient satisfaction, it can also lower personnel costs related to helping patients find their way around. 


Wayfinding Approaches

There are three main categories of wayfinding solutions: interactive kiosks, universal signage, and a hospital mobile app. The best hospitals use a combination of all three to offer a superior patient experience.


Kiosks are basically touchscreen computer screens that enable a user to determine where they are, where they need to go, and how to get there. They also can contain a directory of hospital services. The one feature-related drawback is that patients can't take kiosks with them. The burden is on the patient to remember what they learned from the kiosk as they head off in search of their destination. Kiosks also can only accommodate one user at a time. Finally, a full deployment of kiosks across a hospital system can be expensive.  


Universal Signage

Universal signage is foundational. It is a relatively inexpensive way to accommodate hospital visitors of varying language abilities. The limitation of signage can be found when attempting to navigate from one hospital to another. Or from a hospital to an outpatient clinic. Universal signage is a necessary - but not sufficient - condition of superior wayfinding.


Hospital Mobile App

A hospital mobile app is a smartphone app (e.g. iPhone, Android) that is offered for free to patients. These apps often contain helpful hospital resources such as hospital telephone directories, online insurance info, and medical libraries. Many apps often have location and wayfinding resources. The benefits of these features is that they are always with the patients. For example, if a hospital visitor uses a kiosk to get directions to another wing of the hospital and forgets halfway through the journey, the smartphone can help the visitor get back on track. Specifically, the smart phone can provide a campus overview as well as individual floorplans.



While GPS wayfinding within a building isn't quite there yet, mobile apps can take advantage of the devices onboard GPS capabilities to provide directions to other locations within the health system.



The Bottom Line

Wayfinding is a priority for well-run hospitals that understand the importance of the overall patient experience. Kiosks are helpful, but are limited in their utility. Both universal signage and hospital mobile apps are very cost-effective solutions and should be considered as part of any wayfinding plan.