Please upgrade your browser

For the best experience, you should upgrade your browser. Visit our accessibility page to view a list of supported browsers along with links to download the latest version.

Design Bugs Out: Improving patient safety on hospital wards

Making Britain's hospitals cleaner and safer has become a top Government priority in recent times. Well-publicised problems with healthcare-associated infections, especially with MRSA and C. difficile, have led to calls for action to find new ways to reduce their spread and improve cleaning practice.

It was against this background that the Design Bugs Out programme was launched by the Design Council in partnership with the Department of Health and the NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency. Its aim was to bring designers together with clinical specialists, patients and frontline staff to help combat infections by making hospital furniture and equipment easier and quicker to clean.

Research Associate Grace Davey, together with Senior Research Associate Sally Halls, worked as part of a specialist patient safety design team at the Helen Hamlyn Centre, which was commissioned to develop designs for six pieces of everyday equipment used by doctors and nurses.

Extensive research took place in hospital wards across the UK. Interviews were conducted with nurses, patients, cleaners, porters and other healthcare staff to identify the areas that could benefit most from design intervention. Standard hospital procedures were documented and analysed.

The researcher also used immersive research techniques, putting herself into the hospital environment to experience the ward from the patient's point of view.

The project consulted experts in the fields of design, healthcare, microbiology, nursing and patient care to give direction and steer findings. What emerged was a range of items that could have the most potential to reduce patient exposure to infections and improve cleaning practice. Six were selected for redesign.

The first design is a mattress that uses an 'intelligent' material to change colour when it becomes contaminated by body fluids. Hospital staff can see a potential infection area at a glance. The second is a cannula, a type of needle used to deliver fluids to a patient intravenously, with a self-timing indicator to tell staff when the line needs to be changed. Many cannulas remain in the patient long after the recommended period, causing infections, as staff have little visual indication of when to change them. The third item is a set of handles that clip onto cubicle curtains. Through a unique design and a magnetic mechanism, they provide an easily sanitised 'grab-zone' on the curtains and also keep them firmly closed for patient privacy. The fourth idea is a wipeable, polythene-covered cuff for blood-pressure measurement with magnetic closures, instead of Velcro fastenings that trap debris and are difficult to clean.

The fifth prototype is a pulse oximeter for measuring oxygen content in a patient's bloodstream that clips onto the patient's finger. The redesign is free of dirt-traps and complicated corners, creating a surface that is easier to clean. The final idea is a patient wipe dispenser that encourages patients to maintain their own cleanliness. It incorporates an integral clip that allows it to be attached anywhere in the bed space of a ward.

The prototypes have been launched by the Design Council in London, and exhibited in 'showcase' hospitals and presented at healthcare conferences across the UK where they have been well received. They have the potential to go into production with further development. As David Kester, Chief Executive of the Design Council, explains: 'Design Bugs Out has demonstrated that a little bit of good design can go a long way to providing simple, practical solutions based on the real needs of patients and hospital staff.'

Research Associate 2009: Grace Davey
Research Partners: Design Council, NHS Purchasing and Supply Agency, Department of Health
RCA Department: Innovation Design Engineering