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.

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Follow the Arrow

Businessman putting gas nozzle to his head, screaming.

We’ve recently got a new car, and I’m delighted to discover that it has the same indispensable ‘extra’ that our previous car had.

I’m not talking about the 360 degree parking cameras or the huge sun roof, though I like both of these features.  I’m thinking of the little arrow on the dashboard that tells you which side the petrol cap is on.

This may seem trivial, but I don’t think I’m unique in finding myself suddenly panicking as I drive towards the pumps, trying to remember whether I need to pull to the right or the left.  Admittedly, most petrol stations these days have hoses that will comfortably reach to either side of the vehicle, but I secretly fear that while pulling the hose out it will become detached and gallons of hazardous liquid will pour in torrents onto the forecourt.  It will then become lit by someone’s careless cigarette and the whole forecourt will explode in a towering funnel of smoke reaching to the heavens that will be seen from miles around.

And that would be embarrassing.

I only discovered what the arrow signified when a friend pointed it out during a ‘which side is the petrol cap on?’ monologue.  So just in case anyone else was similarly in the dark, that’s what it’s for.

Now I just need a gizmo to remind me what I was looking for when I walk into a room.

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How to Paint a Rubber Duck in 4 Easy Steps

rubber duck

In my last post I mentioned my attempts to encourage my children to read instructions.  This weekend child number two decided to use a ‘paint a rubber duck’ kit that they’d recently been given for their birthday.  Realising that this provided an excellent opportunity to both begin to instill the ‘read the instructions’ lesson and practice their burgeoning reading skills, I wrestled the box out of her hands before the cellophane was half off and insisted we sat down and read what she needed to do in order to complete the project.

Scanning the first line briefly to ensure the vocabulary presented no extreme challenges, I read the following:

‘1. During creative activities it is advised that children wear overalls and that all surfaces are covered.  Art supplies may not wash out of all materials.’

Children + paint = mess?  You don’t say!  But it wasn’t just the obviousness of this advice which rankled.  It was the mealymouthed tone of the thing – it just makes the whole process sound so dull!

“Ok,” I conceded, “you don’t need to read number one.  Go on to number two.”

Child, falteringly:

“ ‘ 2. Remove the rubber duck from the package and place it on the covered work surface with the paints and paintbrush next to it’.  What does that mean Mummy?“

“It means take it out of the box before you try and paint it,” I replied.

Child number 2 gives me what I believe used to be called an ‘old fashioned look’, then moves on to item 3:

‘Use the paints to decorate your rubber duck and make it unique.  Be creative!  Be sure to let the paint fully dry before handling (a few hours).’  Does that mean I can have it in my bath tonight?”

Good question, but one to which the manufacturers evidently didn’t want to commit themselves.  I made that kind of non-committal ‘mmmm’ noise that most parents are adept at, then looked despairingly at instruction 4:

‘Take your rubber duck into the bathtub or pool and watch it float!’ 

Child 2 had lost interest by this point and was busily mixing up all the colours to make that kind of browny-purple that you always get.

“So I just need to paint it, and then in a bit it will be dry?” she questioned, slapping a bit or orange on the beak.

Hmm.  Well, at least she did some reading.

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1. Instruction 1 – ignore the instructions.

I’m trying to persuade my children to read instructions, and it’s an uphill struggle.  Whether its toys, tools or homework, it seems that the lines in bold and often in SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS at the top of a page are actually made to be ignored rather than induce focussed attention.

I confess, this is a family trait.  X years ago (where x > 20) my maths teacher at the beginning of my ‘O’ Level course gave our class one of the most useful lessons I’ve ever been taught.  He handed out a sheet of maths questions to everyone and told us he was giving us a short test in preparation for our exams.  We had just two minutes to complete it.

As soon as he started the test, I began to dash through the questions.  About half way through I glanced to my left and saw that one of the, ahem, perhaps slightly less gifted members of the class was sitting grinning with his arms crossed.  “He can’t have finished?” I thought in alarm.  Rapidly I scanned the room and found that although some children were still scribbling, a fair proportion were sitting there as if they had, indeed, finished.  Panicking, I look back at my sheet – what was I missing?

It was then that I realised that at the top of the sheet was a single line instruction:

“Write your name at the top of the sheet and then put your pen down.”

Point elegantly and convincingly made.

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