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Using Clinical Space to Shape Patient-Provider Communication

March 2015
Author: Lisa Ellis

When you think of your organization’s setting, you probably focus on its visual and functional aesthetics. But do you also connect the design approach to the logistics of the communication that occurs in the space? If not, you could be missing some very real opportunities for improvement, since research reveals that the two can be closely linked.

As the focus in healthcare hones in more and more on that all-essential interaction between physicians and patients, you’ll want to be more aware of how your design choices facilitate such meaningful communication.

Here are three examples of how space impacts provider-patient communication:

  1. Emergency Department (ED) patients who are seen in curtained-off areas versus private exam rooms are less likely to talk honestly and openly with the attending physician. In fact, studies have found that these patients report feeling less comfortable sharing health information with their clinicians when they know people are on the other side of the curtain than those who have single exam rooms with walls to separate them from other patients. This is a significant discovery since without open and honest communication, the physician may not be able to make a proper diagnosis and the patient could be left feeling frustrated. Something to keep in mind when determining the logistics of your ED space.

  2. When it comes to inpatient rooms, lack of privacy in your layout can also hamper open and honest communication between providers and patients. Studies find that patients in single rooms (versus larger rooms accommodating two or more patients) have a higher level of comfort with the doctor and are more willing to talk about their symptoms and concerns. Consider how to maximize space and privacy in patient  units to encourage the flow of essential communication.

  3. Missed opportunities for eye contact between the provider and patient can be detrimental to their relationship. But a little design intervention can go a long way in helping them connect. With the adoption of electronic health records and other technological advances (such as interpreter programs via iPad) used during the exam, the danger exists that the physician will spend more time looking at the electronics device rather than facing the patient. Therefore, strategic placement of that device becomes essential. Make sure the room layout allows electronics to be placed in close proximity to the patient’s location. In a clinic setting, this can be accomplished by placing the workstation next to the exam table. In a hospital room, consider using a mobile cart that can be positioned near the bed. (The latter makes it easy to wheel over to share the information with family members, too.) When the provider and patient review the screen together, this can facilitate added opportunities for eye contact, and it can also help the patient feel more involved and understood.

In patient satisfaction surveys, people treated in those practices and facilities where the setting is conducive to strong communication tend to give higher scores. This means it’s well worth keeping communication needs in mind when you tackle your next construction and/or design project. Both your staff and your patients will probably thank you later!

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