Customer Experience: Healthcare by Design

Image credit: Jim Roof Design

As health care insurance premiums rise year over year and out-of-pocket expenses rise in tandem, patients are beginning to realize that they no longer must accept 1960s-style doctor offices and plastic plants in the hospital lobby. In fact, in response to consumer-driven trends, some health providers are feverishly updating their office decor. Yet, these improvements cost extra dollars that some hospitals and doctors say they cannot afford. Are improvements to the overall patient experience worth the investment?

A hulking magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine sits in front of a painted backdrop of a country hillside, a bubbling brook, birds alive with song, and willow branches gently hovering above the water. Looking at the image behind the MRI machine, do you feel more or less anxious regarding your exam?

That’s a question that hospital administrators are asking themselves as they look to design principles to help re-engineer the customer (patient) experience.

Though shabby carpets, medical charts, and plain stark white walls remain the mainstay of hospital and doctor office waiting rooms, some medical practitioners are starting to realize that better design can reduce anxiety, increase patient satisfaction, and even lead to better health outcomes.

An article from Atlantic MagazineThe Art of Healing” cites how hospitals, doctor offices and clinics are taking cues from cutting edge retailers like Starbucks and Best Buy to redesign the patient experience. Author Virginia Postrel writes that since MRI and CT scans usually frighten patients, research shows that “simple elements like nature photos can ease their stress.” In support of this point, Ms. Postrel mentions, “Other studies with subjects ranging from the severely burned to cancer patients … have found that looking at nature images significantly reduces anxiety and increases pain tolerance.”

And it’s not just the sprinkling of nature images throughout the health care provider that’s working. Architectural configuration is also coming into play where designers are ensuring that patient recovery rooms get a good dose of sunlight and hospital rooms have access to windows with a clear view of blue skies and trees. One study cited by  Postrel found that patients with a view of nature had shorter hospital stays and required less “high-powered medication.”

The renewed focus on patient experience by some healthcare providers is long overdue, but not completely altruistic.

While the Atlantic article notes that it is certainly more costly to incorporate good design principles into the healthcare setting (sometimes an additional 10-15% expenditure), doctors and hospital administrators are realizing that patients have much more choice on where to spend their health care dollars. Indeed, such trends as more private pay patients, adoption of consumer-driven health plans, and websites ranking hospital care are pushing health care providers to up the ante in providing a better patient experience.

Ultimately, despite a renewed emphasis on designing a better health care experience, most patients would choose the best doctor in a substandard environment over a competent doctor in aesthetically pleasing surroundings. However, as consumers arm themselves with newly available information on satisfaction ratings of doctors and hospitals, error rates, and even outcomes, consumers will drive the health care system to improve not only the quality of care, but also the overall customer experience.

Questions:

1) Should your health care provider look more like a day spa?
2) Suppose you had an elective surgery where a significant portion was private pay, would you be willing to spend 10-15% more for a better patient experience?
3) Has your hospital or health care provider taken into account better design principles? Have these improvements made a difference in your perception of the provider?
4) Will the passage of the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 accelerate or impede health care aesthetics re-design?

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