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“It was at night but there wasn’t enough lighting. We were in a queue with many sick babies and their mums. We weren’t quite sure what would happen next or how long we had to wait which made us quite nervous…”

Rushed and stressed, her two-year-old son in pain, Aliyah’s experience of a children’s hospital ER ward is not unique. Even before COVID-19, South Africa’s state hospitals have been oversubscribed and under-resourced.

With an influx of patients on an already over-pressured system, is it not time to look at how to improve the patient experience in hospitals? Experience design can help.

More than a facelift

Pediatric surgeon and chairman of Surgeons for Little Lives, Professor Jerome Loveland, is all too familiar with the challenges facing state hospitals in South Africa.

“Firstly they [state hospitals] were never designed to focus on these [patient] needs, rather just the directed care of the presenting complaint or condition. The multi-disciplinary approach to supporting the “softer” aspects of child health, and that of their careers, was never a priority,” Loveland explains.

A compelling example of how design can transform this paradigm is the new Parental Sleep-Over Facility at Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, a project of Surgeons for Little Lives. By creating a space for caregivers to remain with their children during hospitalisation, the facility is more than an aesthetic facelift. It demonstrates just how experience design goes beyond visual decoration and can improve the entire experience.

Walking the plank

Experience design does not only make hospitals look more friendly and calming, it has medical and operational benefits too. An example of this is GE Healthcare’s Adventure Series – a story-based redesign of diagnostic imaging procedures that traditionally freak kids out.

In his TEDx talk, industrial designer Doug Dietz reflected on a game-changing encounter between a terrified young patient and his cutting-edge CT scanner: “…the room was dark with flickering fluorescent lights. The machine that I designed basically looked like a brick with a hole in it… It was an awakening for me.”

Dietz did a complete U-turn and went back to the drawing board. The result: a series of scanning adventures that captivates young patients, whether they are walking the plank for a pirate-themed scan or snuggling up in a ‘sleeping bag’ for a camp-themed scan. This holistic solution reduced the need for anesthesia, lowered stress of parents and staff and improved productivity.

Technology can lead the way

Engineer Nolan Rome sees digital health tools as key players in children’s hospitals for the future . Rome believes that smart solutions, like wearable technology and handheld devices, could be used to reduce the stress of children in hospital settings by enabling children to be more involved in their treatments.

As with all design solutions, it is essential that they speak directly to the needs of the users. Perhaps it is creating patient material tailored to an anxious parent or a playful app or interactive sculpture created to alleviate a child’s fear.

Designing with empathy

But how do healthcare facilities take the first steps in improving and making changes?

Service and experience designer Michael Wolf from Formula D in Cape Town knows how:
“We use a process referred to as user-centered design. Often, design solutions fail because they are thought out in a boardroom and do not consider the various stakeholder needs. Our design process is built around working with and for people from day one. Sometimes our users become so invested in the process, they co-design the product.”

Formula D specializes in creating edutainment experiences for families and kids, where learning happens in a pleasurable way. Wolf sees great opportunities to improve hospital experiences using principles of visitor engagement through storytelling.

“Healthcare is just another experiential journey. If the user story is inconsistent, people get frustrated, lose faith, or get scared. By orchestrating the journey of a patient experience, we can frame it in the way most desirable to the user and most effective for the hospital. “

In conclusion

It is all too clear that experience design can create meaning, reduce social isolation and empower patients on their health journey. If harnessed effectively, experience design can transform hospitals, improving efficiency and infecting them with much-needed joy and whimsy.

Article by Jenna Mervis