Industrial Design

Debugging Healthcare by Design

Hospitals are notorious for making people sick. In the U.S. alone, the government estimate says that one in ten hospital patients catches a hospital-borne infection, and such infections contribute to about 90,000 deaths in the nation annually. What’s particularly disturbing is that studies have shown that one-third of these infections are considered preventable. Thorough sanitizing of surfaces, for instance, has been effective against staph infections and gastroenteritis.

In the UK, the relative percentage of hospital-borne infections is comparable, but the Brits aren’t taking it lying down. The UK Department of Health and National Health Service enlisted the support of the Design Council to design hospital furniture and equipment that are easier and faster to sanitize. In 2008, they launched the “Design Bugs Out” campaign with an advisory board of microbiologists and healthcare experts assigned to work with designers. The Design Council, in turn, organized teams of designers, ergonomists and researchers to meet with nurses, patients and housekeeping staff to identify problem areas that could be addressed through design. Their findings were presented to the Expert Reference Group and Advisory Board, who chose the top 10 priority areas to develop into design briefs. The Royal College of Art’s Helen Hamlyn Centre was assigned to work on such things as hand sanitizers and blood-pressure cuffs. For furniture and larger equipment, the Design Council sponsored a national competition for teams of designers and manufacturers, with a monetary award given to winning concepts for prototype development.

One product that made the public see that design is about more than making an object pretty is the new commode by designers Tom Lloyd and Luke Pearson and their manufacturing partner, Kirton Healthcare. The commode is molded from 100% polypropylene plastic that can weather repeated use of germ-killing chlorine bleach and a sturdy stainless steel frame that won’t harbor germs in the scratches. Designed to minimize unnecessary touchpoints and joints between metal and plastic, the structure is safer and can be disassembled easily for cleaning. The commode design also integrates a number of features that enhance user comfort. Armrests are textured with a fine grain to create more grip for the user and swing up to make it easier to get the patient in and out of the seat. The chair is equipped with wheels and footrests so patients can be transported from the bedside, and looks like a regular porter’s chair to dispel the impression that the patient is being wheeled about on a toilet. The pan is made from disposable paper pulp that drops into the hole, rather than mounts from underneath it, thus eliminating splash back. It also has a lid to contain waste when taken away.

While the intent of the commode’s design was to minimize contact with infectious germs, it addressed many more critical issues including functionality, comfort, cost of replacement parts, the dignity of the user, and, yes, the modern aesthetic look of an essential piece of hospital equipment.