I have lived and worked in Ann Arbor for three years, and have made many trips to Lansing and Detroit for meetings and events. In Lansing, I go to about five different locations: my car is almost on auto pilot. I have been to various locations in downtown Detroit and the surrounding suburbs. What would I do without the GPS technology we all take for granted?

I have a built-in navigation system in my car, but you probably have the same capability when you use a map app on your smart phone. My daughter warns me, though, to not depend on GPS when you get close to the destination – “Use your eyes,” she advises.

Do you remember those thick spiral-bound books of maps for a metro area?  You needed a magnifying glass to read them, and you also needed a co-pilot in the passenger seat to manage the maps. I remember when we stuck add-on Garmin devices to our inside windshield or tried to somehow balance them on the console. I still sometimes use the online Mapquest or Google Maps service to print out the directions in advance; sometimes
I want the big picture visual with me. But the convenience of a built-in navigation system with voice directions in my 2008 car is far better. I rely on it whenever I’m headed someplace new.

But what about when you are in a large building complex? Finding your way in hospitals is a challenge for both patients and staff, especially in large academic medical centers with old and new buildings connected on a sprawling campus.

Recently, I went to a meeting for my organization that most of the attendees had trouble finding. It was held in a conference room deep in a building that used to be our children’s hospital but now has a mix of departments and offices.  There were no signs that really helped; everyone had to “use their eyes” to follow the room numbers down various hallways. In that situation, the worst that could happen was being late for a meeting.

Our patients experience a different kind of stress. Will they miss their appointment? When they park, the challenge starts. Which entrance, which main hallway, which side hallway to turn down, which room number?

At UMHS, we have been revamping our signage, making it more consistent and easier to navigate once inside. But with over 11 million square feet on our main campus and satellite locations, it is a daunting challenge.

“Wayfinding” apps that work inside buildings are still not common in healthcare. They are expensive investments that have to compete with clinical priorities.

Boston Children’s Hospital has been a leader in wayfinding. It is a 395-bed tertiary care center with 12 separate buildings; some are detached, and some are connected.  Their MyWay smartphone app was released in 2012. In the first six months, the app was downloaded by more than 4,500 patients. A Patient Experience Committee with leaders from many departments guides them in developing and regularly enhancing the app.

Industry studies have shown a positive impact on patient satisfaction scores and a significant reduction in missed appointments when such apps are deployed.  What healthcare provider doesn’t want those kinds of benefits?

As technology evolves and these types of systems become less costly and easier to deploy, I expect to see more adoption within healthcare. In the meantime, have your paper directions and building maps when you arrive, use your eyes to follow the signs, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Sue Schade is CIO at the University of Michigan Hospitals and Health Centers, Ann Arbor. She also has worked for Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Advocate Health Care in Chicago. This column appeared previously in Sue’s blog, Health IT Connect.

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