Healthcare facilities are inherently complex environments. Add in the decentralized way that hospitals and clinics deliver care today, and patients often find themselves navigating through a number of different locations during the course of a single visit.

Being disoriented or lost only exacerbates what may already be an anxiety-producing situation. The frustration of getting lost is ranked among the top complaints by visitors to healthcare facilities. While they initially blame themselves for their inability to find their way, they quickly redirect their frustration to the organization. The negative impact on brand image, confidence, and trust is significant.

A common response from facility planners is “more signs,” as if hardware were the solution. Yet adding more words, on more plaques and in more places, only compounds the problem. Current research on healthcare wayfinding has shown that signs alone are inadequate. The challenge is to understand how a patient or visitor receives information about their pending doctor appointment, medical procedure, or other interaction with the facility.

In response, savvy healthcare providers are turning to integrated wayfinding systems to help get visitors to their destinations with ease. An ideal experience might start with an appointment reminder card that includes directions and points the visitor to a Web site for additional maps and department details. Upon arrival at the facility, visitors see interactive digital maps and are greeted by employees who are trained in the terminology of giving directions. All of these tools are now being used in a variety of complex healthcare environments in conjunction with traditional exterior and interior signage.

An effective wayfinding program includes physical elements, communications, and human interaction, as evidenced by the following trends:

  • Healthcare systems are developing “centers of care,” branding their facilities and connecting the dots between the diagnostic and treatment processes. For example, instead of mammography and oncology with separate and disjointed identities, there is a “Center for Breast Care” with its own branded identity that is featured on all associated signage. Through consistency of language, the facility makes the patient’s journey simpler and more direct so that he or she doesn’t feel lost in the shuffle.
  • Multilingual signage has become standard as healthcare facilities adapt to the population’s growing cultural diversity. For example, California has mandated multilingual care access and many other states are following lead. Translation of common terms requires not only literal but also regional awareness—Spanish is spoken differently in Texas than it is in California, for instance. And context is key; terms that are sensitive to patient needs and perspectives must be considered as a part of any wayfinding program.
  • More healthcare settings are incorporating the needs of the child patient into their efforts. Empowerment and confidence elicit trust from children who are in unfamiliar, potentially frightening settings, and their participation in wayfinding interpretation can make the experience easier to tolerate. This helps explain the effectiveness of programs that use characters as companions (e.g., Sunrise Hospital in Las Vegas) and offer arts-and-crafts displays (e.g., Le Bonheur Children’s in Memphis) to soften the shock of the environment.
  • Providers are exploiting the fact that wayfinding can be sourced both online and offline. The journey to healthcare now starts from home, with appointment cards and Web access that provide guidance before a visitor ever sets foot in a facility. The goal is consistency: language used online must match printed literature which must be supported by electronic and physical signage. As a result, wayfinding design programs have evolved to include analysis of all reference points, including employee training. The goal is to ensure consistent verbal communication.
  • Hospitals have realized that medical terms can be confusing and frightening; mouthfuls like “otolaryngology” or “gastroenterology” alienate patients from their own care before it even begins. The solution is patient-friendly terms like “Ear, Nose and Throat Care,” or “Digestive Care.” Alternatively, graphic symbols can represent care processes and the parts of the body being treated (see above). This simplifies communication for the English-speaking public and addresses the need for an understandable language for non-fluent patients and visitors.
  • Traditional healthcare settings are monotonous, with passageways and halls that are virtually indistinguishable from each other—a perfect setting for getting lost. Hospitals are addressing this with “landmarking.” For example, Tucson Medical Center, a 600-bed hospital on a single floor, selected a single art or nature-based theme for each of its courtyards and trained staff to use the courtyard terms in giving directions. Other hospitals place memorable artwork at key decision points, such as corridor intersections, for orientation and reassurance. An interior designer can vary finishes and colors at these same points, thus bringing the visual and tactile palette together.
  • Senior care designers know that dementia makes the simplest form of wayfinding difficult or impossible. In response, they are creating richer, more cue-saturated environments to prompt recognition from Alzheimer’s and other memory-care patients. Theme-based designs, like “Small Town,” “Classic Movies,” or “Good-time Music” can incorporate photos, murals, object displays, and even personal shadowbox containers. When the cognitive volume is turned up, residents “hear” more from their environment and have better recognition and less confusion.


A comprehensive wayfinding and orientation program may appear to be simple, but its complexity and its impact on the visitor experience is significant. It demands the input and collaboration of many stakeholders and an acute understanding of the behavioral patterns of the users, but there is no question that this multifaceted approach is the only way to make sure that patients routinely getting lost on the way to see their healthcare provider becomes a thing of the past.

Phil Murphy and Matthew Brown lead the GNU Group’s Healthcare Studio. The GNU Group is a planning and design firm in Lafayette, California, that specializes in integrated wayfinding systems for the healthcare industry.