The other day a colleague of mine told me she has nightmares about red dots—and I can’t blame her.

Those red dots were part of a presentation given by Russell Olmsted, director of infection prevention and control services at St. Joseph Mercy Health System (Ann Arbor, Mich.), during DuPont’s recent Healthcare Speakers Series event on designing for infection control.

The dots were rampant on a photo Olmsted displayed showing all of the instances of potentially dangerous germs that were found in a patient room that had already been cleaned and prepped for the next incoming patient. That’s pretty scary stuff.

Olmsted was joined by Ella Franklin, nursing research program director at the National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare at MedStar Health (Washington, D.C.), and David Ruthven, co-lead and creative director of NXT Health (New York), for the panel discussion. Healthcare Design was the media partner for the event, and I was on hand to serve as moderator.

During my talk with the group, we delved into the preponderance of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) in the U.S. and how design can play a role in combating the epidemic.

While we’ve made some headway in reducing instances of HAIs, there’s still plenty of work to be done. According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we’re looking at one in 25 inpatients each day contracting an HAI during the course of a hospital stay. Based on 2011 data, the report showed 721,800 infections occurring in 648,000 hospitals and 75,000 patients with HAIs dying during their hospitalization. 

Add to that plenty happening on the regulatory front to incentivize providers to eliminate HAIs, and this topic isn’t going away any time soon.

So what role can designers play in the process? Of course, any infection control program starts with influencing human behavior (wash your hands!). But where can hand-washing sinks be placed to ease adoption?

And what about cleaning? How can designers create spaces that make it easier for staff to reach all the nooks and crannies—or, more, how do we eliminate those nooks and crannies to begin with?

Franklin mentioned a couple of great examples that come to mind, like a collapsible nurses’ station that can be pushed out of the way for easy disinfection of a space or a band of bright-colored paint running the perimeter of patient room walls to indicate the places most often touched by hands and that require a bit more attention from the cleaning crew.

But is that just the low-hanging fruit? If you’re familiar with NXT Health’s Patient Room 2020, you might say yes. Ruthven used the example of the futuristic patient room model’s UV light sanitization that essentially scans an entire room and “washes” it of pathogens between patient stays.

As we progressed through our discussion, what also became apparent is that some of the most effective strategies in designing for infection control don’t always mesh with today’s ideals for homelike healthcare environments—from carpeted floors to sleepover spaces for family. So is it possible to strike a balance between comfort and safety?

Going back to the Patient Room 2020 example, the room may feel a bit stark for some, with its top-to-bottom white solid surfaces and sleek lines offering few places for germs to hide—and even fewer warm hospitality touches.

Should there be an expectation for features that may cause more harm than good? As Ruthven says, we’re talking about hospitals, not homes. After seeing all of those red dots, I'm inclined to agree.