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How technology is changing the patient experience—and what that means for designers

February 18, 2020

From AI to cellphone maps, technological advancements are helping ease anxiety for patients and giving designers power to change healthcare facilities

Trips to see your healthcare provider are stressful. There are no two ways around it. For decades, designers have worked hard to create environments to reduce anxiety and consider the patient experience at the forefront.

Generally, designers and healthcare providers have helped create the healing environment as we know it today. We’ve focused on the physical space and the environment to reduce that anxiety. We see examples in today’s healthcare settings: clarity of wayfinding, use of natural materials, access to natural daylight, and calm environments.

Understanding the effect of those design elements has allowed us to make great strides in the patient experience.

But we’re in a place where technology can greatly improve what’s already being done in the physical healthcare environment. Today’s technology addresses a new type of patient and arms them with information about their location in the facility, the status of their appointment, resource materials about their visit, and follow-up care assistance.

While technology won’t eliminate all the anxiety associated with a hospital visit, there are several ways it can reduce that stress.

Everyday technology like cellphones can easily enhance a healthcare trip for patients, while experiential design can change the feel of a treatment room. As a designer, I’m excited about the future of healthcare design, particularly with 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality (AR) playing key roles.

Your cellphone—technology to ease anxiety

The obvious starting place when we talk about technology is the ubiquitous cellphone. It can be a great stress reliever before, during, and after a visit to your doctor. Here are some of the ways your cell can ease your stress:

Forms: We’ve all been there. You show up to your appointment on time—and then get a stack of forms to fill out. Via your cellphone, you can make sure the provider has all the information they need and the patient-consent forms are all filled out well in advance of your appointment.

Naturally, security with patient history is important. Patient history is powerful information, and in the wrong hands it could be dangerous. That’s why healthcare has turned to blockchain as a method to protect patient records.

A recent report from Deloitte showed that, while the technology is a hot topic in industries from financial services to telecommunications, healthcare is planning the most aggressive deployments, with 35% of health and life sciences respondents saying their company plans to deploy blockchain within the next year.

Directions: Most of us have experienced pulling into “Parking Lot C” and then needing to find “Room 717” in “Building L” or something similar when we get to the hospital. Getting where you’re going is a huge stressor in healthcare settings.

For years, architects have focused on providing good wayfinding in hospitals. The clarity of how we set up spaces, the hierarchy of how we proceed through a hospital—from open public areas to the most private of spaces—is never going away. But the enhancements and the ability to embellish that experience by providing maps and locations can be a real game-changer.

As 5G technology has allowed deeper penetration into what are typically enormous hospital floor plates (where notoriously you don’t get good cellular or data service), we can have directions at our fingertips.

Imagine having the healthcare center’s app downloaded on your cellphone. Now when you arrive in “Parking Lot C,” the app knows you’re there. It marks the location of your car and provides you the best route to “Room 717” in “Building L.” Likewise, it can make it easier for you to regroup with your loved ones after a patient drop-off. You’ve got a map right in your hand to your destination with an estimated arrival time.

We’re pretty much all using that GPS technology today when we drive, but this tailors it directly to your medical visit. I can’t emphasize enough how much that one technological advance reduces stress.

Timing: Again, imagine having the hospital app on your phone. When you arrive in “Room 717” the healthcare staff is immediately notified that you are there. You don’t even need to check in. You’ve already submitted your forms and the healthcare provider has all the information they need.

Not only are you immediately checked in upon arrival, but you also get a notice of your anticipated wait time. No longer do you need to suffer through the, “do they even know I’m here?” element of the visit. You’ll know where you are in the wait queue and when to expect the doctor.

Follow-up care: The visit to the doctor is just part of patient care. Studies show the most important aspect of the visit is the follow-up care. Now, the patient can walk out of an appointment with everything they need for follow-up care right on their cellphone—more information on their condition, some suggestions for lifestyle changes, their prescription regimen, and links for follow-up visits with specialists or therapists.

As designers, this changes how the hospital looks. Previously, this sort of research took space—there was often a library adjacent to the lobby that we had to program in so that people could go use a computer and find out about a condition. Now that just goes with you.

That hospital app can understand what your care plan is, and it makes it more likely you’re going to follow it. Sometimes, we’re irritated by the notices on our cellphone. But in this case, the notice is: “Did you get your prescription?” Your nurse can connect with you afterwards and see if you have any questions or trouble getting your prescription.

Artificial intelligence and augmented reality

AI and AR are already part of today’s medical world. Right now, AI is reading charts and medical images, helping make diagnoses. AR is part of the surgery process in some hospital operating rooms. With a headset, AR allows surgeons to see a tumor under the skin before they ever move the scalpel.

AI and AR have the power to greatly change our healthcare world. But how it impacts each of us varies.

While technology won’t eliminate all the anxiety associated with a hospital visit, there are several ways it can reduce that stress.

Consider my mother, my son, and myself. The degree to which each of us can and will benefit from AI and AR is different. Honestly, AI and AR allow for great personalization.

For instance, I’ve visited some doctors who are super hip and super techie. They don’t lay a hand on you, and I think that’s great in many instances. But there’s some in my generation—and many older—that want a “hands-on” approach. They want the doctor to put the tongue depressor down their throat and make them say “ahh.”

With AI, care teams can begin to tailor their interactions with patients. AI can act as a scribe, making it easier for the doctor to interact with the patient. When you respond to a survey about your doctor’s visit, AI will automatically help the care team learn that, yes, you do want that tongue-depressor experience.

It also works as a check and balance, acting as a prescription-interaction checker. Let’s say you’re using that hospital app we discussed earlier. With AI, the app begins to learn the things that stress you out or the things you’re interested in, and it works with that information. Instead of adding to your stress with an inundation of unneeded or unwanted information or “technology for the sake of technology,” you get useful information that helps with your care.

Now, my son would be an early adopter of technologies that may not be as comforting to my mother. How he would use this information on his doctor’s visit would be different than my mom. But AI will help all of us to varying degrees. AI is just machine learning, and it’s based on algorithms. It sees what you’re trying to do and tries to understand what it is and figure out where to close those gaps.

Experiential design to help the patient’s mindset

Going to the doctor or hospital is rarely considered fun. It’s not a trip to Disney.

But some of what makes the “Disney experience” so memorable and enjoyable can be woven into the healthcare world. It won’t make the trip to the hospital fun, but it can change the overall experience. And technology is key to that experiential design.

Let’s consider a cancer patient.

If I’m asked to design a cancer center addition, I’m going to map that patient experience from the parking lot to the front door through the public spaces until that patient gets to see the provider. If I see things that don’t seem to support how a patient might feel or how to lower anxiety, we’ll make changes on that “map.”

Frequently, that cancer patient ends up going into the basement of the hospital for tests or treatment because that’s where the imaging department or the linear accelerator is located. And now that patient—who is likely scared and has anxiety—is in a tight, compressed space that’s devoid of any natural light or natural materials—things that we’ve learned make a difference in care and outcomes.

Many healthcare settings—from the MRI room to a dentist’s chair—have a photo of a nice, pretty, natural scene on the ceiling to provide a sense of calm.

Well, experiential design takes that to an entirely different level. Instead of just a photo of a sunset or palm trees in Hawaii, you can have a fully immersive experience in the MRI room. Video walls allow natural scenes to surround the patient. And it’s not just a static scene, you can see and hear the rain falling on those palm trees. Or, if you love skiing, the scenes can change to a snow-covered mountainside. We’re now in a place where we can change the environment to match our programming to benefit the patient.

Technology also enhances the patient room, design choices architects make, and the overall patient experience. Previously, doctors had a stationary keyboard and their back was turned to the patient. Research shows that the most important element to patient comfort with the doctor is eye contact. Now, the doctor can look you in the eye as he or she writes or types on a tablet, maintaining the important provider-patient connection. You see the notes on a flat screen and your comfort level goes up knowing that the doctor understands your condition.

As a designer, I can be more efficient and flexible with space. I don’t need to include space for the skeleton sitting in the corner or the special scribe table for the doctor. Technology changes our decisions on physical space.

The future—it’s always changing

Innovative, disruptive, divergent thinking is what drives the tech space right now. I live in San Francisco; I’m surrounded by it, and it’s fascinating.

You can apply those same principles to healthcare, and that’s when patient care begins to improve. With AI and 5G coming online, they will serve as the engines for some fantastic developments.

Technology impacts each of us daily and that’s going to continue to advance. Today’s tools—and especially tomorrow’s—put us in a position to greatly enhance the patient experience in healthcare. I can’t wait to see what the future looks like.

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