It seemed that hardly a week went by in 2012 in which there wasn’t some small PR calamity surrounding an NHS trust in the UK. With the number of PCTs and further acute trusts in the UK, mistakes happened and were attributed by the general public to a ‘single body’. Blame lies largely in the media – after all bad news is good news, and pay cheques are often gained from spoon-feeding gloom and doom…

Nonetheless, the patients who actually interact with trusts and twiddle their thumbs as an inpatient are the ones with the informed and valid opinions. This is why in 2010-11 the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement held diverse focus groups with patients and relatives. Their goal was to examine how to better patient experience and surroundings. The focus groups discussed what “goodlooks like to patients. After all, first impressions count, and narrowing down something so subjective is no mean feat.

A mother took part in these groups, she said: “I can tell what kind of care my daughter is going to get within 15 steps of walking on to a ward.” This admission is brutally frank, but how did she know? Her quote sparked the development of the 15 Steps Challenge toolkit, which was launched last year for acute organisations, and in 2013 is being launched for mental health trusts and community services. The ultimate goal is to lay the brand values of the NHS on the table, and show that the priority is still about bringing good healthcare to all, and communicate visually that quality of care and patient comfort should be and will be paramount within individual trusts.

The mother’s first impression could be the result of many factors, perhaps the receptionist was on the phone, increasing initial waiting time; or maybe the clinician was busy and appeared a little blunt when he met with them. These are day-in-day-out issues and are a fact of human interaction, but what about the actual waiting space itself? Before people have a chance to read a word, the typeface it is set in dictates the tone of voice. The same goes for the physical space that people occupy. In this decade people are so used to absorbing content that have become passively adept at taking in their surroundings – positively or negatively.

A mother will probably be content waiting in a fairly accommodating place as long as her child is happy and they feel like the care they are being given is worth the wait. However, visual logic dictates that her impression of the care itself being delivered will plummet if her daughter is tired of loitering in unpleasant waiting spaces and spends three quarters of an hour with tears running down her face. It only takes a few minutes of crying to cement an opinion gleaned from the publicised mishaps of other trusts for her to dread another visit.

Similar issues to this were tackled through a visual communication strategy at the new Royal London Children’s Hospital. Designer Morag Myerscough and the Olympic poet-in-residence for 2012 Lemn Sissay, created a new look for the previously drab children’s dining rooms and social spaces. Sissay led a series of poetry workshops to engage young patients and to create new poems. These poems were then brought to life through a series of design workshops for patients led by Myerscough. Finally the children’s poems were transformed into designs and patterns: Making vibrant wallpapers and stencilled stools for the five children’s hospital dining rooms that can be seen below.

Children are an exceptional circumstance and can be engaged in a way that adults cannot, but the end result is the same… Children may benefit more directly from interaction with imagery, but both adult and child feel the same effects of the resulting stimuli. The commission creates moments of intrigue and wonder within the hospital environment making it far more inviting. The results of surveys since the completion are showing significant improvement over previous satisfaction surveys; even though no new processes had been put in place.

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I have had the pleasure of meeting Morag in person whilst attending a spatial design conference. She directed me to her own work and other works around the hospital that take on the visual refresh further such as a “A Journey Around my Pencil Case” shown below. It is this level of attention to detail that has helped raise the profile of the hospital, and is game changing in terms of public opinion… Which leads me to wonder, how can other trusts and firms that operate at a patient-level within healthcare emulate this success through visual communication in 2013?

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