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Hospital Design May Help Prevent Medical Errors

The recent rise in preventable medical errors has led to a new trend among hospitals – design innovation. According to the Center for Health Design, at least 35 hospitals have begun building facilities designed to make a difference in the quality of care.

Concerns over hospital safety began to mount in 1999 when the Institute of Medicine revealed that an alarming number of patients die annually because of medical errors – between 44,000 and 98,000.

To help reduce the incidence of medical mistakes, lawmakers recently enacted legislation that allows doctors and nurses to report errors confidentially.

St. Joseph’s Hospital in West Bend, Wisconsin, implemented an anonymous reporting system in 2003 after administrators began to suspect that safety issues were not being properly addressed.

The numbers confirmed their suspicions. Prior to the installation of the anonymous hotline, the hospital averaged only 250 reports per month. Afterward, that number soared to 3,000.

The hospital’s chief, John Reiling, proposed a novel idea: Build a new facility using patient safety as the guiding design principle.

Typically, the focus is on reducing human error when it comes to preventing medical mistakes. For instance, many hospitals encourage proper hygiene to prevent the spread of infection and urge doctors to write prescriptions cautiously to avoid medication errors.

However, Reiling wanted to concentrate efforts on innovative design, which he predicted would help medical staff perform their jobs more precisely and carefully. As it stood, the hospital suffered from lighting problems and high noise levels.

The new facility, which opened in August, boasts some significant changes including nurse stations situated for increased patient visibility and a more efficient ventilation system.

Above all else, standardization was the key design element. Every room in the new facility is identical. The idea behind standardization is that medical staff will be able to work more effectively if the setting is familiar and they can rapidly locate needed supplies.

The hospital is already beginning to see results. Compared to the older facility, anecdotal evidence suggests a decrease in the number of preventable medical errors. Infection rates seem to have dropped, and the number of injuries stemming from falls and medication errors also appears to be reduced.

As more hospitals turn to design to aid in the prevention of medical errors, people are beginning to view it as an integral aspect of quality hospital care.

“Many people are now aware of the impact that environment has on patient safety,” said Craig Zimring, environmental psychologist and professor of architecture at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.


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