Have you ever got lost in a hospital? Then you are not alone. At this week’s Royal College of Nursing Conference in Liverpool, delegates reported that some consultants were having to go on so-called ‘safari rounds’ to track down missing patients (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-22269688). Nor is it only in-patients who disappear in the system. Spend any time watching the traffic at your local hospital and I guarantee that you will see a succession of people desperately trying to find where on earth they are meant to be – just look for the small crowd clustered round the series of blue signs offering a menu of exotic-sounding departments.
This is not to deny that the hospitals have a big communication challenge to overcome. They have a large numbers of visitors, a complex range of services to offer, and sometimes, certainly in this country, old and meandering buildings, often with a series of new extensions grafted on. Their patients are frequently elderly, or with poor mobility and conceivably have more weighty matters on their mind at the time of their visit than trying to undertake some kind of orienteering exercise.
A couple of weeks ago I was attending an outpatients’ clinic and while waiting for my appointment I was able to watch the effects on staff and patients of some poor signage. For reasons that were not clear, the hospital had decided to turn the corridor leading to the outpatient clinics into a ward, thus requiring the outpatients to take a U-shaped diversion to get to their destination. This had clearly only recently been changed and a few temporary signs had been put up, but in a 10 minute period I must have watched about 20 people attempt to enter the ward to get to their clinic.
The ward staff were continually distracted from their real roles to redirect people. The outpatients were confused and embarrassed by their mistake. The ward patients would doubtless have been better off with less disturbance and fewer germs entering their area.
Assuming the layout change was needed, how could the hospital have managed the situation better? The limited signage that the hospital had put in place (a few A4 Powerpoint signs stuck to the relevant doors) was never going to be sufficient to jolt the repeat visitors out of autopilot and stop them from following the same route they had always followed. Thinking about the problem, it seemed to me that they needed something large and incongruous to get people’s attention – a large cardboard cutout pointing the way maybe?
Once each outpatient had been redirected, the nurses shook their heads in disbelief at peoples’ inability to follow the signs. I had quite a lot of sympathy with them. However, it seems to me that when communication fails on a large scale there’s really no point in blaming all those who have failed to understand. You need to change the medium or the message.