How design can reduce distractions and save lives in healthcare

September 1, 2016 Bruce Knepper

Designing out distractions in healthcare settings.

We have two cell phones, often more than one computer or tablet. Today, we are constantly connected and communicating. Many of us spend more than half of each working day on email. We read email while we are on the phone, we are on the phone while we are emailing, and we are on a conference call while watching a training video. We’re messaging while we’re emailing while we are on a call. You know you’ve done it! Multi-tasking has become the rule of the day. In the words of NASA astronaut Jack Swigert, ‘Houston we have a problem.’

But what does the age of multi-tasking have to do with the planning and design of a healthcare environment?

A recent paper published by Johns Hopkins University estimates that medical errors are the root cause of 200,000 to 250,000 deaths per year. A lot of people die as a result of mistakes. I cannot help but wonder how many of these errors were made because of our mad compulsion to communicate and multitask every waking moment of the day. We live in fear of Zika, Ebola, and even firearms. But what about the danger of distractions? 250,000 dead is a really big number. New figures from the Center for Disease Control put medical error as the third leading cause of death in America – third! – behind only heart disease and cancer. Many more are injured by medical errors. But, up until recently, these errors were not tracked as a cause of death.

New Oakville-Trafalgar Memorial Hospital (Stantec Architecture – master plan & PDC consultant)


As designers of healthcare environments, we must ask ourselves how we can affect behavioral change by reducing distractions. We can use our skills to:

  • Reduce the distracting noise levels in the building (by employing ceiling tiles with high sound-absorbing capacity, for example)
  • Reduce visual distractions in the work areas (by providing visual privacy at nurse’s stations, for example, for tasks requiring greater concentration)
  • Plan work areas to support task-focused activity
  • Plan clinical work areas to be quiet and free from distractions
    Medication prep locations
    Charting locations
  • Plan noisy, collaborative spaces to be just that, so that the distractions don’t explode into every work area
  • Improve daylighting and natural color rendition (via LEDs that connect us to our circadian rhythms) to promote concentrated work             

Hospital for Sick Children - Emergency Department


But before we design, we can lead by example. Try spending time each day “single tasking” and see how great it feels. Then take it one step further: turn off your electronic devices for a few minutes and take a moment to reflect, breathe, de-stress, and be quiet.

Will this eliminate all human error from distractions? Probably not. But it has to be a step in the right direction.

About the Author

Bruce Knepper

With over 40 years of project experience, Bruce—a specialist in healthcare design—is responsible for our US East Healthcare sector. A founding member of the American College of Healthcare Architects, he’s designed and been responsible for all aspects of healthcare facilities.

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