The Holy Grail of Healthcare: Patient Experience (And How Design Can Influence It)

As providers continue their shift toward value-based and patient-centered models of care, creating remarkable patient experiences has become an even stronger competitive differentiator. Today, patients have more care options than ever before, and with non-traditional providers coming out of the woodwork, healthcare systems are in need of new approaches to create patient experiences that are second to none.

Designing healthcare environments to improve the patient experience is not a new concept; most modern healthcare spaces are designed for comfort, accessibility and quality, which are all important in supporting a patient’s experience and their outcomes. But since these considerations are now standard, they alone no longer distinguish one institution from the next. A window in a room is expected, single-patient rooms are the norm, color is commonplace. So the question becomes: What else can organizations do to create experiences that attract and retain the patients they need?

Key to answering this question is understanding how people subconsciously process experiences. At its most basic, an experience is the outcome of an interaction—whether that be with a human, a building, a brand, or the natural environment. A big part of how a person responds to an interaction is rooted in psychology and social science. Psychologically, many humans are hard-wired to react, think, and do in a certain way, and many cultures have norms and values that are unwavering. This makes designing for a standardized experience a challenge, but something that can be done with a thoughtful approach to design.

To understand what specific populations view as ideal experiences, it is important to start with a form of research called ethnography. As a design tool, ethnography goes beyond traditional user group meetings and involves in-depth interviews and observation of people as they go about their lives. A common theme that emerges from ethnography in healthcare is the need for convenience and rapid service, which is why we’re seeing clinics with that aim pop up throughout North Texas. Technology adoption also comes up as a theme, as most people are accustomed to managing their lives via their personal devices.

A good place to start in addressing these themes is to look outside the healthcare industry. Starbucks and Apple, for example, are touted as “gold standards” in consumer experience. Consumers identify with these brands, they know they’ll have a predictable experience with every interaction, and they are confident the companies will deliver a quality product.

And this is exactly what healthcare organizations need to be known for. They need to align their approaches to service delivery with the wants, needs, and desires of the people they seek to attract, and they need to create experiences that keep people coming back for more.

Following are three broad strategies for how healthcare organizations can harness design to create the ideal patient experiences they seek.

Put the patient first. All too often, healthcare spaces are designed to operate like factories. But today, patients want to work with a partner, not with an institution. One strategy that has proven successful is implementing an online check-in process that ultimately eliminates the need for physical check-in desks and introduces a more customized process that enhances patient privacy. When patients arrive, mobile greeters approach them with a tablet, confirm information, and point them in the right direction. Some healthcare systems also now employ RFID tracking technology; when patients arrive, they receive a badge that allows staff to track who they are and where they are, and personalize interactions accordingly.

Localize as much as possible. For larger systems with multiple satellite locations, design standards are important, but it’s also important to allow flexibility to localize environments. This is something Starbucks does really well; for many of its flagship stores, the company engages local artists and craftsman to create stores that reflect the community. This approach can help larger health systems engender loyalty with the growing number of people who desire an authentic, local healthcare experience.

Aim for extraordinary. Creating extraordinary healthcare experiences is inherently difficult because few people actually want to be in a healthcare setting. But we can learn a lot by looking at the places people actually enjoy visiting: spas, hotels, restaurants, museums, etc. Many of these spaces employ strategies that can help create extraordinary healthcare experiences: artwork, soaring atriums, retail and dining options, educational exhibits, ongoing classes, access to nature, and more. These types of strategies can help break the “institutional” perception of the traditional healthcare environment.

The bottom line is that positive patient experiences can have a dramatic impact on the top line. Research shows that hospitals with higher patient experience scores have higher clinical quality, and ultimately, higher profitability. In the midst of intensified competition and ever-changing consumer expectations, patient experience has become one of — if not the most —important drivers of the success of a healthcare organization.

Holly Ragan, based in Dallas, is a member of the executive leadership team at global healthcare design firm CannonDesign.

Posted in Expert Opinions.