One of the most talked-about programs after the 2012 HEALTHCARE DESIGN Conference was the Patient Experience Simulation Lab, a combination of a virtual-reality model and a full-scale mockup of a patient room–stocked with a real-live patient, family members, and a nurse. Through more than 25 sold-out sessions, the Institute for Patient-Centered Design and its partners were able to give participants a front-row opportunity to see how design elements can help (or hinder) the patient/nurse/family dynamic.

Kahler Slater provided the concept on which the on-site mockup was based; the Milwaukee-based firm won the institute’s Patient Empowered Room Design Competition with a design that hit all the marks defined by the jury for a successful patient-friendly room. “One thing that really stood out for us was the way the design angled the bed so the patient could see out the window better,” says Tammy Thompson, president of the Institute for Patient-Centered Design. And while on-site limitations didn’t allow the mockup to showcase this feature, other elements—such as privacy from the corridor and an easy transition from the bed to the bathroom—remained intact.

“We always make a conscious effort to design from the perspectives of the patient, family, and caregivers, but we aren’t always fortunate enough to see the space in use,” says Eric Mayne, healthcare architect and project designer for Kahler Slater. “We saw firsthand how easily the caregiver and patient were able to work together in the room, and how subtle changes to the height and location of the bedside charting station can improve the communication and bond between them.”

Session participants were able to view about a half dozen patient care scenarios, Thompson says, such as a nurse taking vital signs or checking the patient in at bedside. Each session’s small group could ask questions of the patient, nurses, and family members. The institute is working on coordinating all the information collected on site so they can present it to the community at large.

Later this year, the institute hopes to take its simulation lab on the road. By working with local hospitals and a strong network of architects and designers, Thompson hopes they can secure an empty patient room within a hospital to conduct similar scenarios for the education of the local healthcare design community. She says her team was able to test this concept pre-HCD Conference with Grady Health System in Atlanta, and it was extremely well received.

Through all these simulations, Thompson says, “We’ve met a lot of designers who don’t have a healthcare background, without much experience in the hospital setting. Our goal is to bring designers the opportunity to speak directly with patients. That feedback can’t be replaced with interviewing nurses or other staff. We just want to ensure that the patient has a voice in the design process.”