Universal Symbols in Health Care

Universal Symbols in Health Care

A set of 56 graphic symbols introduced today by SEGD and Hablamos Juntos will make hospitals and other healthcare facilities easier to navigate, particularly for underserved populations and patients with limited English or reading proficiency.

Universal Symbols in Health Care are the result of a two-year, multi-faceted research effort led by Hablamos Juntos and SEGD. The research team included a consortium of four university design schools, experts in wayfinding, symbols development, legibility, and testing, as well as design firms specializing in health care wayfinding.

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The symbols were being implemented in new signage programs at four Innovator Health Care Facilities that partnered with Hablamos Juntos and SEGD on the research and testing: Women & Infants Hospital, Providence, R.I.; International Community Health Services, Seattle; Children's Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.; and Grady Health System, Atlanta.

The research - the second phase of an effort that began in 2004 - is part of Hablamos Juntos' mission to develop practical tools to overcome language barriers to health care. Recognizing that navigating through a hospital or health care facility can be a confusing, stressful experience if signage and wayfinding systems are not easy to understand, the project sought to develop symbols that would ease navigation at a range of facilities, from large, multi-building complexes to simpler, single-clinic settings.

"Making our signage easy to understand and eliminating language barriers is one simple way we can improve the health care experience for everyone," said Yolanda Partida, director of Hablamos Juntos. "Universal symbols also offer an alternative to bilingual or trilingual signage that can quickly become useless with unreadable font sizes."

During testing conducted at the four Innovator facilities, the symbols were found useful by patients from extremely diverse linguistic backgrounds, including English, Spanish, Khmer, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Somali, and Korean.

With Partida, SEGD Director of Education Craig Berger coordinated the work of the large research team, including the university consortium tasked with developing an ongoing framework for designing and testing the effectiveness of universal symbols in health care wayfinding systems.

"The most important culmination of this work is not just the expanded set of universal symbols, but the framework established by the university consortium to develop and test new symbols as they are needed," said Berger. "The project team recognizes that universal symbols for health care settings will be an ongoing process."

Working collaboratively, the four university-based design schools created a curriculum to support developing and testing candidate symbols-155 in all, primarily designed by students-and identify those best understood by linguistically diverse subjects. Participating schools were California Polytechnic State University (Department of Art & Design, College of Liberal Arts); University of Cincinnati (Digital Design Program, College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning); Iowa State University (Design Program, College of Design); and Kent State University (School of Visual Communication).

The symbols research, development, and testing was completed under a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Pioneer Portfolio, which supports innovators whose bold ideas push beyond conventional thinking to explore solutions at the cutting edge of health and health care.

"Incredible innovation can result when experts from different fields come together to find solutions," said Paul Tarini, senior program officer with RWJF's Pioneer Portfolio. "With this project, health care and design experts have come together to create an adoptable solution that will make it easier for people-especially those who often experience the most challenges-to get the care they need."

The research is documented in an educational guide for hospital administrators and designers entitled, Universal Health Care Symbols: Developing a Symbols-Based Wayfinding System, and in a series of technical reports and case studies prepared by the research team.

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