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Wayfinding as Brand

Influencing staff behavior to improve patient experiences.

A brand is a promise that creates a set of expectations. For many institutions, wayfinding is a means of delivering on that promise. A health system brand answers: Why should I choose you? Once that initial choice is made, patients and their families mostly want to get the appointment over and get on with their lives. Any unexpected difficulty erodes their confidence in the brand, and makes them question their choice.

A familiar story

Fran is a radiology technician in a large midwestern regional medical center, where she’s worked for 13 years. Her responsibilities typically keep her inside the Radiology department as she prepares patients and performs procedures. She is often on call, working hours late into the evening or early morning as schedules dictate. She typically travels only between the staff parking garage and her unit; occasionally she goes to the cafeteria or the computer center in the basement of the building for mandatory training. She’s frequently asked for directions from Radiology to the Cafeteria, which she can quickly recite.


On this morning, she’d been called in early. She had a minute to settle in before her first patient arrived. As Fran stepped out for a quick cup of coffee, she encountered an elderly couple in the hallway who’d arrived for an outpatient procedure with doctor’s orders in hand. At that time of morning, no volunteers were available to direct or escort them; security had allowed them access to the building, but happened to be busy with other concerns when the elderly couple arrived. They had not provided directions.

They saw Fran, in scrubs, with a nametag and a friendly face, as their only hope of making the appointment on time. They handed her their doctor’s orders, which identified the procedure but had no instructions for how to check in or where to wait. Fran’s familiarity with the facility was limited, and she admitted that she was embarrassed to say she wasn’t sure which outpatient area they should use: one in a hallway off the main lobby, or one on the fourth floor.

She walked them slowly back to the main lobby, where they found that they needed to be on the fourth floor. Turning back, they had to rest given the limited mobility of the husband, who was tiring quickly. Fran pulled a wheelchair from behind the volunteer station; together, they walked to the visitor elevators, and she brought them to their appointment.

They were 15 minutes late, but were admitted with little difficulty. Fran, for her part, skipped the coffee and went back to her unit. Her supervisor wondered where she’d been, since her next patient had already been waiting for 5 minutes. Everyone involved was frustrated; not a good start to the day.

What went wrong?

The elderly couple arrived with no specific instructions from their referring physician. Had the medical center reached out with current information, the administrative person at the doctor’s office could have said “you’re pre-registered, so go to the medical center and check in at the fourth floor outpatient surgery desk.” Even if that had been verbalized, it would have been quickly forgotten.The referring physician lacked the ability to customize their orders with maps or directions.

The building itself did not contain a system of wayfinding tools to help the couple differentiate between the two outpatient surgery areas on their own. For her part, Fran didn’t even have a room number for reference as she helped the couple. An easily-deciphered system of room numbering would have immediately provided the clues she’d needed, had this been part of ongoing training.

Wayfinding connects people to place

Integrated communications for patient and staff based on built environment is has a critical impact on the patient experience. Here are some ways to start making your place deliver on your brand promise:

  1. Tools – Create a simplified system of wayfinding tools, tied to the logic of the physical space, that allows staff to understand the organization of the space at a very high level.

  2.  
  3. Training – Develop a consistent staff training program to provide that basic building logic, and the quick formula for understanding how to direct based on area, elevator, level and room number.

  4.  
  5. Co-Learning – Physician liaisons that furnish information and updates to referring physicians on a regular basis; medical center “lunch and learns” for physician administrative staff to tour the facilities and connect directly with their assigned liaison.

  6.  
  7. Communications – Consistent outreach in staff communications and immediate updates to the staff Intranet as physical changes to the building occur, including department moves.

  8.  
  9. Job Descriptions – HR adding patient satisfaction to the job description of each staffer, and demonstrating how this basic knowledge can be applied to all patient/visitor interactions.

  10.  
  11. Reminders – Managers reinforcing the importance of these measures in monthly staff huddles.

For many organizations, the connection between brand and the built environment are inseparable. Consistent, relevant and clear messaging is required to deliver on brand promises.

By guest blogger Mark Vanderklipp of Conduct Experience.

Photos by Matt Hampel and Robert Couse-Baker.


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