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Hospital Wayfinding Strategies for a Better Patient Experience

Key physical design principles, plus digital hospital wayfinding tools, can help patients, staff, and visitors navigate large hospital campuses.

Visiting the hospital can often mean a literal maze to recovery. While patients usually know they have a road paved with care management ahead of them, less is often made of the hospital wayfinding and navigation that can make or break the patient experience.

Hospital wayfinding refers to an individual’s ability to navigate around the hospital. This is no easy feat. Most hospitals are big, and as they build out more departments on older layouts, navigation might not always be intuitive. Put simply, it’s not hard to get lost in the hospital, whether you are a patient, visitor, or staff member.

To that end, healthcare organizations need to prioritize hospital wayfinding, or the design features that make it easier for individuals to navigate the building or campus.

Experts assert that hospital wayfinding serves two main functions: helping to ease the patient and family member experience and helping to support staff experience and efficiency.

According to a 2024 paper published in Applied Ergonomics, poor hospital navigation can be a stressor for patients and, by proxy, their visitors.

“Encountering wayfinding difficulties may tax the emotional strength of patients, raising their blood pressure and heart rate, and increasing their fatigue and frustration, especially among older adults,” the article authors wrote. “These difficulties are added to those associated with the physical journey to the hospital.”

In a separate Applied Ergonomics paper, this time published in 2021, researchers said strategic wayfinding design can help support the patient.

“For the user, good design promotes healing because when users understand their environment and manage to find their way relatively easily, it provides them with a sense of control and empowerment,” researchers wrote in the 2021 article.

While the focus of this primer will be hospital wayfinding considerations to promote a good patient experience, it should be noted that strategic hospital design can also benefit the organization itself. That’s essential, given the upfront costs associated with making physical and technical updates to the facility.

It may be expensive to make some architectural or design changes or implement hospital wayfinding technology, but these changes could allow staff members to spend less time navigating from one place to another or giving patients directions.

Wayfinding Considerations for Hospital Design

Hospital wayfinding relies heavily on the architectural choices made during hospital design. Hospitals need to be designed in a way that is intuitive to navigate and in a way that provides patients and their visitors with visual and other sensory cues that aid navigation.

While it may feel intuitive to rely on signage to aid in hospital wayfinding, many experts caution against this.

In an assessment from the University of Houston Clear Lake, researchers found that too much signage can lead to information overload, which can hamper patients’ working memory abilities. The researchers advised hospitals to provide patients with the least amount of written information necessary to accomplish patients’ navigation goals.

And in the 2024 Applied Ergonomics study, the researchers said that too much directional text, numeric coding, or even signage featuring unfamiliar medical jargon can get in the way of hospital navigation.

So, if not signage, what design choices can help hospital wayfinding? Experts advise hospitals to consider:

  • Color coding, particularly by hospital department
  • Use of visual cues, like art or notable architectural choices, to create patient “landmarks”
  • Variation in hospital layout based on department

Variation in the visual and other sensory aspects of the hospital was mostly helpful. Having different services in different buildings naturally helped with wayfinding, while using color and light intensity or size to differentiate spaces was also helpful. According to one 2021 study, color-coding hospital departments actually engage certain neural networks that spark positive behavior responses.

Other visual clues can help patients learn the layout of the hospital. Using certain design or décor elements to serve as landmarks for patients and their visitors is a key part of hospital wayfinding and design. In a 2015 article by the Center for Health Design, the use of art, architectural elements (e.g., arches), structural elements, and furniture helped patients identify their own landmarks and better learn the hospital layout.

Conversely, data in the 2024 Applied Ergonomics study showed that having great variation in hospital layout actually impeded hospital wayfinding; having to take too many turns or having to navigate too many intersections got in the way of streamlined navigation.

It may not be possible for hospitals to entirely circumvent this problem; some hospital buildings are old, making the layout of modern services in an older building less intuitive. In these cases, hospitals should work on the décor and design elements that help with patient navigation.

But even as healthcare organizations employ a strategic combination of low-text signage and visual cues, wayfinding can still be troublesome. As more hospitals have adopted technology, digital wayfinding tools have emerged to help patients access maps and directional routes in the hospital.

Implementing Digital Wayfinding Tools

Digital wayfinding tools are a growing part of modern hospital navigation.

As hospitals continue to get larger and the litany of wayfinding signage adds another layer of complexity, digital wayfinding has emerged to try and simplify the patient experience.

“A digital wayfinding system is a set of computing devices that are linked to a central server that generates and displays interactive wayfinding information (e.g., a map and directions to reach a desired destination as well as related parameters such as distance and estimated time),” according to the 2021 Applied Ergonomics article authors.

These systems can come in the form of fixed computer terminals or kiosks, mobile apps often integrated with the hospital app or mobile patient portal, and spatialized sounds from certain facility landmarks. The tools can be useful because they promote patient autonomy that can create a less stressful healthcare experience, and because they can be augmented to fit individual needs, like language preferences or font sizes.

Per the study from the University of Houston Clear Lake, other key considerations include:

  • Consistent use of “You Are Here” cues
  • Orientation of maps that is relational to where the user is
  • Accessibility features, like allowing users to select wheelchair accessibility options

Digital wayfinding can go beyond providing a digital map. Many of these technologies also leverage Bluetooth, which allows users to see where they are in relation to the rest of the hospital. This may make it easier for users to chart a path to where they hope to go.

Like other health IT investments, digital wayfinding tools can be expensive, so many hospital leaders want to be judicious about which technologies they implement.

Some of the vendors providing digital wayfinding currently include, but are not limited to, CenTrak, Gozio Health, GuardRFID, Med Maps, Ouva, Pointr, Purple, TouchSource, Visix, Some of these vendors serve healthcare specifically, while others offer digital wayfinding services for multiple different sectors, including healthcare.

Before purchasing, organizations may consider how different technologies will serve hospital needs and how tools integrate with existing patient-facing technologies.

Regardless of the architectural or digital wayfinding solutions a hospital employs, it will be essential for staff members to be a part of the navigation solution. Being ready and willing to answer questions for patients and their visitors creates the personal touch many healthcare consumers still desire.

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