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Design for Patient Dignity: Enhancing the experience on hospital wards

Since 2009, the National Health Service has had a priority of ensuring that hospital wards are single-sex. Whilst this has been achieved for most patients, around one in ten report that they shared sleeping accommodation with a member of the opposite sex ­– a situation that adds to their personal stress levels at an already worrying time.

This project, led by Helen Hamlyn senior associate Maja Kecman, took on the challenge set by the Department of Health and the Design Council of improving privacy and dignity for all patients. Out-dated patient communication, confusing signage for toilets and bathroom facilities and revealing ward gowns can all negatively impact on the patient experience of a hospital stay.

The designers were briefed to consider the clothing provided to patients and the quality of information available to them, and to explore ways in which a greater sense of privacy could be achieved for patients.

The research began by addressing the patient journey through the hospital in order to define key areas for improvement. An evidence base was gathered through immersive research with a wide range of hospital users, including patients and their families, carers, frontline NHS staff and suppliers.

Observations, interviews, workshops and design provocations yielded many insights and identified opportunities for change. Design concepts were evaluated, refined and tested with selected users to create final prototypes that could be developed for production.

Several new ideas resulted, each aimed at reducing vulnerability and improving dignity. A new signage system allows ward staff to easily change facilities from male to female without having to wait for hospital technicians. The blue and orange signs use simple icons, protrude above bathroom and toilet doors and are designed to be visible from a distance.

To better communicate with patients about their hospital stay, a Patient Information Sheet doubles as a disposable tablemat to be placed in each bay with ward information on it. It can be personalised by staff or contain details about the particular day, such as meal times and visiting hours.

The Mixed-Sex Ward Divider is a separation device. Reconfiguring the architectural layout of a building is expensive so this simple, pull-out screen is fixed to either side of the ward and suspended from the ceiling. It can be pulled out to different lengths, concertina-style, to create a barrier across or down the middle of the ward, dividing the room and ensuring privacy and segregation of the sexes.

The project also redesigned two garments to accommodate different needs. For very sick patients in intensive care, the ICU Cover drapes over them attaching to the arms and neck. It is made of a non-woven, disposable fabric to aid infection control. Perforated slits make it easy to fit monitoring equipment or tear open in an emergency.

For most other patients, the Inclusive Gown fits a range of sizes and body shapes. The garment can be securely worn with the opening at the back or the front with butterfly sleeves allowing easy access to the patient's arms. A pocket on the outside of the garment can be used for personal belongings, whilst a pocket on the inside is big enough to support a catheter bag.

The Helen Hamlyn Centre's prototypes were launched by the Design Council at an exhibition in London in March 2010 alongside work by other design teams as part of a national design initiative.

Research Associates 2010: Yusuf Muhammad and Karina Torlei
Research Partners: Design Council and Department of Health
RCA Department: Innovation Design Engineering
Senior Research Associate:  Maja Kecman